SCOTUS on Police Stops: Two Key Details

SCOTUS on Police Stops: Two Key Details

A lot of people are angry about a new Supreme Court decision holding that police do not necessarily violate the Fourth Amendment when they stop someone based on a misunderstanding of the law. In the 2009 incident that led to this case (Heien v. North Carolina), two men were stopped for having a brake light out, and consented to a search that turned up cocaine. One of the men later claimed that the stop (and thus the subsequent search) was unconstitutional because North Carolina law does not ban driving with a brake light out -- it mandates only that at least one light be working.

The decision was 8-1. Here are two details that help to clarify why it generated so much agreement.

First, it isn't clear that the cop got the law wrong, at least as it then stood. As the Court wrote (citations removed):

The North Carolina vehicle code that requires "a stop lamp" also provides that the lamp "may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps," and that "all originally equipped rear lamps" must be "in good working order."

Second -- and relatedly -- while a state court held that only one brake light is needed, it did so as part of this case; the holding was not available to the officer as he made the stop. As implied above, this decision, from 2011, focused on the references in the law to "a stop lamp" and "the stop lamp," in the singular.

Essentially, the Court held that the officer's decision to make the stop was reasonable, as the Fourth Amendment requires for searches and seizures, given what the law in fact said at the time of the stop. The decision specifically cautions (and Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, further emphasizes in a concurrence) that cops can't use their sloppy study of a law as an excuse for a stop. The decision also notes that a valid reason for a stop is not the same as a valid reason to uphold, say, a ticket. The majority opinion may be wrong -- Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented -- but it doesn't say quite what many think it does. 

The decision is brief and worth reading in full to those interested in this area of the law. Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy has some thoughts on the finer nuances of the case here.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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