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Home > Blog > Criminal Defense > When Police Don’t Know the Law – Heien v. North Carolina
Jul 21, 2015

When Police Don’t Know the Law – Heien v. North Carolina

You may have heard the phrase “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Just because you aren’t aware that it’s illegal to turn right on red in New York City doesn’t mean that, if a police officer pulls you over for doing it, you can say, “Sorry, I didn’t know,” and go on your way. If that was the case, a lot of havoc would be created by folks pleading ignorance of the laws where they live.

But what about if a police officer doesn’t know the law, and arrests you because of his or her mistake?

It seems absurd, but there are thousands of laws on the books in each and every state, and police officers are human, after all. If you still don’t think it could happen, take a look at a recent case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, Heien v. North Carolina.

In this case, a police officer pulled a car over because one of the taillights was broken. While talking to the driver and passenger, however, the officer became more and more suspicious, and asked if he could search the vehicle. They said that he could, and when he did, he found cocaine, and they were both charged with drug trafficking. All because of a broken taillight.

However, in North Carolina, having a broken taillight wasn’t illegal. At least, not according to Section 20-129(g) of the state’s vehicle code. If the police officer had known that it was legal, then he wouldn’t have had grounds to pull the car over, would never have talked to the driver and passenger, would not have asked to search the car, and would not have found the drugs that led to the arrest and charges.

When the case went before a judge, though, another provision in the North Carolina vehicle code, Section 20-129(d), complicated things still further. This provision made it illegal to drive without two working taillights. Through some oversight on the lawmakers’ part, in North Carolina, it was both legal, and illegal, to drive with one working taillight.

The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. There, the Court said that, because the officer’s mistake about the law was “objectively reasonable,” he still had enough of a “reasonable suspicion” to justify stopping the car, even though that suspicion was based on a mistake. Because the stop was okay, the search and the resulting discovery and criminal charges stuck.

This might seem like an absurd outcome that would allow cops to make arrests without even knowing what the law. However, the Supreme Court was very careful to make sure that this would never happen, stressing that it would take a “genuinely ambiguous” law to make this kind of mistake objectively reasonable.

Heien v. North Carolina can stand for many ideas. One of them is that police officers are human, and make mistakes. Experienced attorneys know how to look for these mistakes, and use them to protect people from criminal charges. William T. Bly is just such an attorney. Call his law office at (207) 571-8146.

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