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It seems like a common sense idea that police have to have a legitimate reason to pull you over, and that a legitimate reason should involve reasonable suspicion that you’re breaking the law. It also seems like common sense that police shouldn’t be able to pull you over for something that isn’t actually illegal. However, a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allows police to do just that.
The court in an 8-1 opinion in Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U. S. ____ (2014), said that it’s okay for an officer to pull you over if the officer is reasonably mistaken about the law — basically telling police officers everywhere that they don’t need to bother to learn what the law is and, in the words of lone dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor, can stop you “on suspicion of committing an offense that never actually existed.”
In Heien, a North Carolina officer stopped Nicholas Heien for having a busted brake light. During the stop, the officer asked to search the vehicle Heien was driving and found cocaine. Heien was charged with attempted drug trafficking and ultimately sentenced to two years in prison. On appeal, his lawyers argued that the stop never should have happened in the first place because it’s legal to drive in North Carolina with a broken brake light as long as you have one working brake light, which Heien did.
It’s a long-held principle of law that a police officer needs reasonable suspicion for a stop. Reasonable suspicion means that there’s evidence that you’re doing something wrong, such as weaving in a way that suggests your driving is impaired or having expired license plates. An officer can’t pull you over for no reason at all because you have a Fourth Amendment right to protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The words “reasonable” and “unreasonable” can get a little fuzzy and leave room for argument, but generally if you weren’t doing anything illegal then there shouldn’t be grounds for a stop. In the past, the Supreme Court has said that stops made when police make reasonable mistakes about facts are not unconstitutional, and any legitimate searches or arrests that follow can stand. So if a police officer thinks he observes you doing something illegal, but is reasonably mistaken in that observation, he can still arrest you for, say, marijuana possession if he then finds some pot in your car. The mistaken observation does not taint everything that comes afterward in the way that a stop with no legitimate basis should.
In Heien, the court has expanded that principle to include reasonable mistakes about the law. From a defense perspective, this is problematic because we expect police officers to know and understand the laws they are sworn to uphold, and the Supreme Court has now said that isn’t the case.
To provide an example, in Ohio texting while driving is a secondary offense for an adult and not one for which an officer can pull you over absent some other cause, such as speeding or having an expired license plate. When the law was passed, the General Assembly specifically wrote the law so that texting while driving is a secondary offense. That was lawmakers’ intent. They didn’t want police to be able to pull an adult over only for texting while driving. With this new Supreme Court ruling, lawmakers’ intent can effectively be overruled by a single officer who claims he thought that texting while driving was a primary offense. This basically gives police the leeway to pull people over for nothing, as long as the officer can claim he made a mistake about the law that a judge will believe — and judges are more likely to give deference to a police officer than to a defendant. The decision erodes the Fourth Amendment rights of ordinary citizens.
If you’ve been charged after a traffic stop in Ohio, the Columbus criminal defense lawyers at Luftman, Heck & Associates can help. Call us today at for a free consultation to discuss your options for fighting the charge.