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Traffic Stops: When Police Get the Law Wrong

Posted on in Criminal Defense

Wisconsin criminal defense attorney, Wisconsin defense lawyer, criminal rightsPolice officers have a fairly large amount of discretion when it comes to making traffic stops, but their discretion is not unlimited. Instead, officers must have a reasonable suspicion of a crime before they can pull someone over. This is not usually an issue because many traffic law violations are quite obvious, like speeding or running a red light. However, there are quite a few traffic laws, and it would be impossible to expect police officers to know all of them by heart. That means that courts need to know what to do when a police officer pulls someone over, believing that he or she is committing a crime, when in fact what he or she is doing is lawful.

Heien v. North Carolina

The U.S. Supreme Court recently handed down a decision in a case, Heien v. North Carolina, where that sort of stop had occurred. A North Carolina police officer observed Heien's car on the road with one broken taillight. The officer used that as justification to stop the car, genuinely believing that driving with a single broken taillight was a violation of North Carolina law.

During the stop, the officer noticed that the driver was acting suspiciously. The officer requested the driver's consent to search the vehicle. The driver agreed, and the officer found a bag of cocaine in the car.

The driver's lawyer attempted to keep the evidence of the drugs out of court on Fourth Amendment grounds. The lawyer argued that the entire traffic stop was improper because North Carolina law only requires a car to be equipped with one working stop lamp. Since Heien's car had that, the stop was unjustified, and any evidence coming from it was tainted. The trial court held that North Carolina law required both taillights to be working. The case then went to the appellate court, which overturned that decision. The North Carolina Supreme Court then decided that the number of working taillights required was unimportant. Even if the law only required one light, the officer made a reasonable mistake of law, so the search was acceptable. This decision then went to the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

The Court's Decision

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that the North Carolina Supreme Court had gotten the case right. A police officer who stops someone based on a mistaken understanding of the law is still on the right side of the Constitution. However, not all stops of this sort are acceptable. The officer's mistake needs to be reasonable, so that this does not become carte blanche for officers attempting to pull people over without good reason.

The law surrounding people's constitutional rights is always changing. If you have recently been charged with a crime and want to learn more about your rights, contact an experienced Milwaukee criminal defense attorney today.

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