Surpreme Court Hears Case: Can Police Officer Stop Car Based On Ignorance of The Law?

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Chief Justice John Roberts

Like most people, Sergeant Matt Darisse believed driving with a broken tail light is against the law. He was wrong.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard if ignorance of the law is no excuse for police officers as well as private citizens. This is the first case of the Supreme Court’s new term.

Sergeant Darisse was on the look-out for guns and drugs in April 2009 when he spotted a Ford Escort with a broken brake light. Maynor Javier Vasquez and Nicholas Heien were on I-77, in Surrey County, NC. Vasquez drove. Heien, the car’s owner, slept in back. Darisse pulled them over and wrote a ticket for the tail light. But, Darisse said the men struck him as suspicious.

Darisse asked to search the car. Heien and Vasquez agreed to it. That’s when officers found a cellophane wrapper with white powder residue in the driver’s door panel and burnt marijuana seeds in an ashtray. But, it was a duffel bag in the back hatch area containing cocaine that resulted in a sentence of two consecutive prison terms of 10 to 12 months for drug trafficking.

Heien appealed. One broken brake light is not against the law in North Carolina. Allowing Darisse’s legal mistake to stand would “vastly expand police powers,” said Jeffrey Fisher, attorney for Heien. Darisse, sporting a six-inch salt-and-pepper goatee, sat in the far corner of the Courtroom as attorneys argued over his mistake and a law written back when brake lights were called automobile lamps.

Heien argues his constitutional rights were violated. He wants the Supreme Court to throw out his conviction.  Since Sergeant Darisse was mistaken about the law, there was no probable cause to stop Heien. The Fourth Amendment requires probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Darisse had neither. It also protects against unreasonable searches and seizures by police.

Evidence from an unreasonable, or illegal, police search cannot be used against a defendant in court. Darisse found the cocaine after stopping Heien. So, if the stop is illegal, the cocaine found while searching his car must be excluded from evidence. Police must know the laws they are enforcing, Fisher said. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, even for police, he argues to the Court.

But, North Carolina’s attorney, Robert Montgomery, told the Court, “A police officer does not have to be perfect.” They can make mistakes in law and fact. Forcing police officers to be perfect would make it impossible for them to do their jobs, he said. North Carolina claims Darisse made a reasonable mistake. Courts have allowed reasonable mistakes by police in the past.

Even Chief Justice John Roberts thought a broken brake light was a moving violation. However, when Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Montgomery if stopping Heien’s car for a broken brake light was mere pretext to search for drugs, he gave no response. Justice Sotomayor expressed concern that police would begin stopping cars, and people, based on their belief of what the law is and not the actual law.   

“Knowledge of and obedience to the law” should apply to police officers and private citizens alike, says the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ in their amicus brief. The ACLU, Cato, and Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund are among the diverse organizations asking the Supreme Court to rule on behalf of Heien.


Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College (CUNY), covers the U.S. Supreme Court, United Nations, and major legal issues. She is the Supreme Court correspondent for AANIC (African-American News & Information Consortium) and author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.”

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