The Supreme Court ruled on Heien V North Carolina on Monday and the ruling to me is ridiculous by itself and also goes against stare decisis.
You can read the details of the case in the link. Basically a police officer stopped a car for having a broken brake light. However, had that police officer understood the law he was pulling the individual over on, he would have known that North Carolina only requires a car to have a singular working tail light. The only legal way for that officer to pull the car over would have been for both brake lights to be out. After the officer illegally pulled over the vehicle he determined that something was fishy and decided to conduct a search on the car. A passenger of the car had cocaine yet Heien was charged with attempted drug trafficking. Heien tried to suppress items found in the search because the search was not a legal search. A later court agreed but the Supreme Court reversed that decision and said that the search was reasonable.
So why is this ridiculous on its face? Well, clearly had the officer followed the law the vehicle would not have been pulled over and as such no search would have been conducted on the vehicle. The law should act as if no search was conducted since officer took actions that were not in compliance with the law. But the Supreme Court stated otherwise and in that decision stated:
And neither the Fourth Amendment’s text nor this Court’s precedents offer any reason why that result should not be acceptable when reached by a reasonable
mistake of law
SCOTUS, meet Arizona v Gant, a ruling you made in 2009. Rodney Gant was detained and handcuffed in the back of a squad car. Police then searched his vehicle and found cocaine in the back seat in a jacket pocket. Now, the law allows for a search of a vehicle if an individual is not detained for reasons of officer safety and to protect the scene of any evidence they feel someone might try to discard. However, since Gant was already detained, there was no threat to the officers or any potential evidence and as such a warrant should have been required to search the car. So why did the officers search the car anyway? Well, according to one of the officers at the scene (Officer Griffith) “Because the law says we can do it.”
Under the ruling in Heier, it would seem to be such an argument would be valid because they are not supposed to be perfect, right? He believed the law allows for such searches and as such anything found by such a search should be admissible. But that was not the case in Gant. The Gant ruling talks about stare decisis and privacy rights. The Gant ruling talks about the dangers of how a law could be too broad and be harmful to the public good. Yet SCOTUS could find no precedent why the search in Heier was not acceptable? Really? Do they have short-term memory loss?
So what is the problem here? Some have said to me that if you don’t want the police to search your car and find drugs, don’t have drugs in your car. That may very well be a smart practice but it doesn’t deal with the main problem here and that is individuals dealing with a police force that is given more and more powers by government and by courts to take actions that should be considered unconstitutional against persons in this country.
What has this ruling done? Well, at its worst this ruling has basically said that as long as the officer is reasonable in his misunderstanding of the law that his searches can be considered reasonable. But since this search was actually an unreasonable search because it never should have happened, who is to say at what level is an officers understanding of the law is reasonable or not? In 2008 there were just under 800,000 police officers in this country. This ruling basically means that people living in the united states are subject to 800,000 interpretations of the law, regardless of how correct those interpretations are, as long as those interpretations are deemed “reasonable”. Instead of persons living here having to deal with 1 set of laws and their actual meaning, we have to deal with the 800,000 interpretations of them. And even if their actions are taken outside of the law, that doesn’t matter to SCOTUS. To them, the ends justify the means. And if a search that should not have been done was done, so be it. This is a horrible ruling and another slicing away at our freedoms and liberties. Or as SCOTUS put it in Heier:
Whether an officer is reasonably mistaken about the one or the other, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law.
Indeed. We should all be terrified.