Supreme Court Makes it Easier for Officers to Comply with Fourth Amendment when Stopping Vehicles

A police officer can’t just stop a driver on the road for no reason. An officer generally must have “reasonable articulable suspicion” that a law is being broken to stop you if you’re driving. And once they do that, they may have a right to search your vehicle. In other words, the reasonable articulable suspicion “opens the door” to potential further searches, if probable cause is developed that a crime has been or is being committed.

But what happens when a police officer is wrong about reasonable suspicion? For example, what happens if an officer thinks you’re breaking a law, but you’re not? Can the officer still arrest you for illegal items he may find on your car? The United States Supreme Court addressed just this question in Heien v. North Carolina.

Bad Tail Light Leads to Arrest After Vehicle Searched

In 2009, an officer in North Carolina observed a vehicle which, to him, looked suspicious. He followed the vehicle, and observed that the left brake light was out. Believing this to be illegal, the officer used the bad light as the reasonable articulable suspicion to pull the vehicle over.

After pulling them over, the officer became suspicious about the vehicle occupants’ behaviors, and thus asked to search the car. Both occupants said yes, and the officer found a bag of cocaine in the car. The men were charged with the crime of cocaine possession.

In court, they argued that the evidence of the cocaine should be suppressed because the officer’s stop of their car was illegal. They argued that, in fact, North Carolina law does not make it illegal to drive with only one brake light. Thus, the officer’s rationale for stopping them because one brake light was out was faulty, eliminating the entire justification of stopping the vehicle.

The Court disagreed, allowed the evidence to be used, and an appeal all the way to the United States Supreme Court followed.

United States Supreme Court Makes a Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court noted that “reasonable suspicion,” as per the Fourth Amendment, which allows an officer to stop a vehicle, only means that an officer has “an objective basis for suspecting” that a law has been broken.

The fact that the officer mistakenly believed that driving with one taillight out was illegal did not make the stop illegal because the Fourth Amendment is based on a “reasonability” standard. A mistake made by an officer when stopping a vehicle, or searching property, can be based on incorrect or inaccurate information, so long as the belief by the officer that there is reasonable suspicion be “reasonable.”

In this case, the mistake by the officer was not based on a mistaken fact, but on a mistake in the law itself. The Supreme Court found this makes no difference, citing to other cases as far back as the 1800s. The Supreme Court noted that officers have to make quick decisions in the heart of the moment, and that they cannot be held to a standard of complete accuracy factually or legally.

The case is somewhat concerning, broadening immensely the power an officer has to stop a vehicle. Officers who are charged with understanding the laws they enforce now can make legal mistakes, so long as they’re “reasonable,” when stopping a vehicle. The subsequent search and seizure still has to comply with the Fourth Amendment, but this case makes it much more difficult to challenge an officer’s right to stop your vehicle in the first place.

Have you been charged with a crime? The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience protecting the constitutional rights of criminal defendants at all stages. If you or someone you know was charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.