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“I Think What You Did Was Illegal”: Stops and Searches Based on Mistakes of Law

The Fourth Amendment protects against “unreasonable” searches and seizures, but what the courts consider “unreasonable” has evolved and shifted over time. One overarching trend over the last few decades is that police officers have been given significant leeway, and usually the benefit of the doubt, to stop and search individuals in various ways. Under federal law, police can search people and their property under warrants that turn out to be invalid, as long as they are acting in the good faith belief that the warrants are valid. The Supreme Court has held that police can validly arrest someone under a law that is later ruled unconstitutional. And police can stop or search someone whom they suspect of illegal activity, even, in some circumstances, if the suspicion was based on inaccurate or faulty information.

One common area where Fourth Amendment rights come into play is traffic stops. The police cannot stop a driver for no reason; such a stop must generally (with narrow exceptions such as sobriety checkpoints) be based on a reasonable suspicion that the driver has violated the law. However, courts routinely uphold stops under the Fourth Amendment when an officer’s attention is drawn to a car based on a hunch (or even racial profiling). A common police tactic is to follow a car until it commits some type of traffic violation or other infraction, and then use that as the basis to stop the car and make further inquiries. Courts have routinely refused to look past this gambit, holding that it is permissible to stop someone if there is in fact a traffic violation, no matter what the officer’s “real reason” for a stop was.

But what if an officer bases a traffic stop on something that is not even against the law? The Supreme Court recently concluded that such a stop can be valid under the Fourth Amendment, as long as the officer was being “reasonable.” In Heien v. North Carolina, a sheriff’s sergeant thought that a driver on Interstate 77 (who, incidentally, was Hispanic) looked “very stiff and nervous” and followed him until he saw that one of the car’s brake lights was out, then pulled him over and eventually found drugs in the car. But under North Carolina law, the State Court of Appeals held, only one working brake light was required, and the car had a working brake light. The United States Supreme Court ruled this detail irrelevant; even if the officer was wrong about what the law required, the stop was nonetheless valid “because the mistake of law was reasonable.”

This conclusion is, in some ways, just another example of the expansion of police authority at the expense of individuals. But it also constitutes a fundamental shift in the relationship between the police and the people they are sworn to protect and serve. An individual who follows the law should rarely, if ever, be stopped or searched, and never harassed by the police. Law enforcement should be the solution, not the problem. And yet it is the unfortunate reality for too many people in our society, especially persons of color, that police intrude into their lives on a daily basis through pretextual traffic stops or controversial “stop and frisks.” Now, according to the Supreme Court, even people who follow the law to the letter can be stopped for what a police officer wrongly believes is illegal. As Justice Sotomayor recognized in her sole dissenting opinion: “Giving officers license to effect seizures so long as they can attach to their reasonable view of the facts some reasonable legal interpretation (or misinterpretation) that suggests a law has been violated significantly expands this authority…. One wonders how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening, and humiliating encounters could do so.”

There must be a limit. At some point, the police must be held accountable. The protests and despair that have arisen after Eric Garner and many other incidents demonstrate the breakdown of the relationship between police and citizens. The courts should not condone governmental overreach. How can the people trust the police if no action is taken when police go too far?

Fortunately, Massachusetts law is more protective than the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourth Amendment requires. Massachusetts courts have held that a mistake of law does not justify a stop or a search. In Massachusetts, at least, the police must have a reasonable suspicion that someone actually violated the law – not what they think the law might be – in order to conduct a valid stop. That may be small comfort to many people stopped by the police, but at least this limit to officers’ authority remains in Massachusetts.

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