You may have heard the phrase “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” It means that, just because you weren't aware that something was illegal to do, doesn't mean that you can't be punished for doing it. A good example is turning right when at a red traffic light. While turning “right on red” is now legal in all 50 states, some local areas, such as New York City, don't allow it. Even though it's a rare exception to a very common rule, it's still illegal to do in New York City, regardless of whether you know about it, or not – your ignorance of the law is no excuse.
But what happens when a police officer doesn't know the law, and this leads to an arrest?
That was the case in a recent case, Heien v. North Carolina, that went all the way up to the Supreme Court of the United States.
In this case, a police officer pulled over a car because one of its taillights was broken. During the traffic stop, the police officer became suspicious of the driver and the passenger, and asked to search their vehicle. They consented, the officer found cocaine, and both were charged with drug trafficking.
However, according to one provision of the North Carolina vehicle code, driving with only one working taillight is perfectly legal in North Carolina. This made the traffic stop groundless – the car was legal the whole time – so the officer's search of the car should never have happened, the drugs should never have been found, and the driver and his passenger should never have been charged.
The prosecutors appealed, won in the North Carolina Supreme Court, and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
There, the Justices decided that the officer's mistake was “objectively reasonable,” largely because the North Carolina vehicle code was terribly written, and required, in one provision, only one taillight, but in another provision, two taillights. Because the officer's mistake was “objectively reasonable,” he had a “reasonable suspicion” that the car's taillights were illegal, supporting the traffic stop and the search that netted the cocaine. The drug charges, therefore, were proper.
Many have seen the ruling as a disaster for civil rights, and a movement towards a totalitarian police state. Like many initial reactions, this one is likely exaggerated. Police are tasked with knowing the law, and applying it to facts in the world. How they see the world around them is only judged on a subjective standard – “from the officer's perspective, did he or she see the facts reasonably?” Heien v. North Carolina, however,creates an objective standard for how cops understand the law that they're duty-bound to apply – “was the officer's knowledge of the law objectively reasonable?” Two of the more liberal Supreme Court Justices, Kagan and Ginsburg, agreed that this was the proper ruling, but stressed this limitation, pointing out that it would take a “genuinely ambiguous” law – such as one that makes it both legal and illegal to have only one working taillight – to make this kind of mistake objectively reasonable.