Supreme Court Okays Evidence from Traffic Stop Due to Legal Misunderstanding

Posted On: January 15th, 2015 by Bradley J. Groene

According to the Supreme Court, evidence collected due to a reasonable legal misunderstanding is still valid. This means that if police find evidence of another crime in the course of investigating another violation of the law that turns out to be legal, the evidence found during the search can still be used to convict you.

The Supreme Court stated that the Fourth Amendment requires police to act reasonably, but not flawlessly. According to Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion, a police officer’s mistake of fact can justify a traffic stop, just as a reasonable legal misunderstanding can satisfy the Constitutional demands for a reasonable search.

This ruling has a somewhat limited impact, since a reasonable misunderstanding of a law would not include commonly known facts or facts that a police officer should reasonably know, including how most laws apply. This still means that any evidence discovered in your car during any traffic stop could be used against you, whether or not the traffic stop was valid or substantiated. We will have to see what kind of impact this has on cases in the future.

Legal Mistakes Not Inherently Grounds for Unreasonable Searches

This ruling came due to a drug-trafficking case from North Carolina. A police officer pulled over the defendant due to a burnt out taillight. The officer then conducted a search as permitted by the driver and found a large amount of cocaine. The man was arrested for trafficking charges. However, it turns out that the original stop was technically invalid. While most states require both taillights to work, North Carolina law states that you only need one working taillight. This means that the defendant Nicholas Heien was pulled over for something that was legal, which he argued made the cocaine found during the search inadmissible in court.

While the conviction was turned over in appeal on this logic, the highest state court ruled the conviction valid. The Court claimed that the officer’s mistake was reasonable, as most people believed a broken taillight to be illegal. The Supreme Court agreed with the North Carolinian court’s finding, ruling the evidence admissible in an 8-1 decision. The Justices held that genuine mistakes could not be automatically considered inherently unreasonable. The lone dissent came from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who feared the decision could worsen public suspicion of police and justify abuse.

While the impact of this decision waits to be seen, you should not assume that technicalities will get evidence from a traffic stop excluded in the meantime. Remember that you have the right to refuse a search of your vehicle or home unless the police have probable cause or a search warrant. Exercising this right is within your best interests, even if you have nothing to hide. If you are pulled over and searched or cited, you need the help of an experienced Cincinnati criminal lawyer who knows your rights and will defend them tirelessly. Call Luftman, Heck & Associates at (513) 338-1890 today at for a free consultation on your case to find out how we can help.