January 19, 2015

Ignorance of the Law is an Excuse

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On December 15, 2014, the United States Supreme Court handed down a monumental case in the world of criminal justice. The U.S. Supreme Court declared in Heien v. North Carolina that ignorance of the law for a police officer is indeed an excuse justifying an otherwise invalid traffic stop. On April 29, 2009 shortly before 8:00 am, Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department pulled over Nicholas Heien on Highway 77 for having a brake light out. This is the only traffic infraction he observed. The legal issue was that having only one brake light is not illegal. The cop gained consent to search the vehicle and then found illegal drugs. Under the well-established 4th amendment doctrine of “fruit of the poisonous tree,” Heien attempted to have the drug case thrown out on the basis that the stop was illegal to begin with. As Ben Franklin said, applicable to situations like these, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Sure, no one wants illegal drugs on our streets, but the price of liberty and being safe from unwarranted stops requires that no one be ill afforded the protection of our laws lest we all sacrifice them. In order to sustain the drug conviction, the U.S. Supreme Court had to find a way to justify the stop. Or did they? It’s a sign of our times that basic constitutional protections are being eroded in the name of public safety; however this does not make it right. Our Founders created our laws on the basic premise that the ends never justify the means. They created a country where the rule of law trumps. In order to protect the country from tyranny, the government must follow the law, or the “means”.

Chief Justice Roberts in his opinion, attempts to justify the stop on the basis that a reasonable person could misconstrue the brake light statute. There are several flaws with this appeal to logic. First, the statute itself is an issue. North Carolina Gen. Stat. Ann. §20-129(g) (2007) refers to “a” stop lamp in the singular and this singular phrase “stop lamp” versus “stop lamps” is mentioned three times. There are clearly four ample references in two sentences to ascertain one need only have a singular, working brake light to be legal. Second, Justice Roberts fails to acknowledge that we are not talking about a reasonable person standard in the proper context. Reasonableness references in our laws are dominant in legal burdens and in the application of law and facts, not merely knowing the law. Police officers take oaths to know, follow and enforce the law. Subjective standards of reason apply to the application of law and the evidence. We don’t give police officers free passes to legally restrain people’s liberties and hope they get it right based on their ability to understand the law. Sure, if a police officer has reasonable beliefs (or legal reasonable suspicion) that a detention is warranted based on facts, our laws give them the power to stop and investigate. As Justice Sotomayor aptly states in her dissent, “The actual state of the law should control rather than a reasonable misunderstanding of the law.” Laws exist to prevent chaos and disorder. When it comes to the police, we introduce such chaos and disorder when we leave the laws open to subjective interpretation by those sworn to uphold the law.

Chief Justice Roberts further gets it wrong. He states “The Court’s holding does not discourage officers from learning the law.” He knows better. For example, with the knowing and willful destruction of evidence by a police officer, in order to get relief a citizen accused must prove the officer destroyed the evidence in bad faith. Does this ever happen? Of course not, innocuous explanations of accidents and unexplainable intervening events are always the go to line one hears on the witness stand. The Heien ruling establishes that bad recitation of the law may justify any stop despite the absence of actual illegal conduct. The ruling erodes the 4th amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Chief Justice Roberts states that mistakes of law must be ‘objectively reasonable.’ Look at law enforcement’s track record on ‘objectively reasonable’ in the world of DWI/DUI as an example. In states like Texas, cops are arresting people for DWI with no driving facts whatsoever for being asleep in their car (very common) in parking lots. Failure to maintain a single lane stops are commonplace where a motorist barely leaves a lane by inches a single time not endangering any other motorists, despite the statute requiring that the driving be unsafe. Our courts are the proper forum to determine the reasonableness of a police officer’s interpretation of the laws. The Heien ruling is a football punt attempt to evade such responsibility and rubber stamp illegal police action at the costs of our citizens’ liberties.

The irony of this all is that the reasonable standard the U.S. Supreme Court is espousing does not work both ways. If a motorist is mistaken about the speed limit in an ever changing speed limit zone, he or she would not be absolved of responsibility based on the reasonableness of their belief or explanation. A bedrock of democracy is accountability. A society that absolves police officers of this is not a democracy at all but tyranny. Our Founding Fathers created this country, its Constitution and its laws in reaction to encroaching government with no representation. Yet our U.S. Supreme Court is expanding the ever increasing role of today’s police state despite the spirit of our Constitution in the name of ‘reason’. It is seriously time for public defenders of our laws to take the high bench, for all of our sakes.


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The acronyms DUI, DWI, OMVI and OVI all refer to the same thing: operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The most commonly used terms are DUI, an acronym for Driving Under the Influence, and DWI, an acronym for Driving While Impaired.
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