Supreme Court: Ignorance of the Law is No Excuse… Except for the Police.
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects us all from “unreasonable searches and seizures”. Put another way, the Fourth Amendment is supposed to make it so officers have to have a reasonable suspicion that you are violating the law before they invade your privacy.
Can the police search your car if the search is based on a misunderstanding of the laws they’re supposed to enforce?
According to the United States Supreme Court, the answer is “yes”.
The Supreme Court recently delivered an opinion on your Fourth Amendment rights that makes it so law enforcement has even more discretion to search your vehicle when they pull you over without a warrant.
Heien v. North Carolina
The case, Heien v. North Carolina, involves a drug case that started with Sgt. Matt Darisse pulling over Brady Heien for having one broken brake light. During the pull over Sgt. Darisse got Heien’s permission to search Heien’s car. While searching the car, Sgt. Darisse found cocaine in Heien’s duffle bag.
It later turned out that Sgt. Darisse pulled over Heien’s car based on a misunderstanding of North Carolina law, which requires all cars to have only one working break light on the back of their car. The Supreme Court held that even though Sgt. Darisse only got to search Heien’s car because he mistakenly thought that Darisse was violating the law, the mistake was “reasonable” and didn’t violate the Fourth Amendment.
Your Right to Not be Searched is Weaker than Before
This case means that your Fourth Amendment right to not be searched by a police officer is weaker than it was before. Even if you didn’t violate a traffic law an officer can pull you over if the officer “reasonably believes” you are violating a traffic law, even if you are not.
Do Not Consent to a Search
The only way you can possibly protect yourself in this situation is to not consent to a search like Darisse did. Even then, this might not be enough to protect your right to privacy in the trunk, glove compartment, or luggage in your car.
The Court’s opinion was almost unanimous with only Justice Sotomayor writing a dissent.