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December 15, 2014

Police prevail 8-1 in first notable criminal justice merits ruling of SCOTUS term

The Supreme Court completed its last bit of formal action for the year this morning with an orders list and a few opinions.  One opinion is a bit of a holiday gift for criminal justice fans: a relatively short ruling in Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13–604 (S. Ct. Dec. 15, 2014) (available here), concerning Fourth Amendment application.  Here is the alignment of the Justices and the start of the majority opinion:

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.”  Under this standard, a search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action includes a reasonable factual mistake.  An officer might, for example, stop a motorist for traveling alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, only to discover upon approaching the car that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat.  The driver has not violated the law, but neither has the officer violated the Fourth Amendment.

But what if the police officer’s reasonable mistake is not one of fact but of law?  In this case, an officer stopped a vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out, but a court later determined that a single working brake light was all the law required.  The question presented is whether such a mistake of law can nonetheless give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  We hold that it can.  Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable, the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.

Obviously, Heien is not a sentencing case or even an issue that I could see readily having some sentencing echoes.  But the alignment of the Justices on this matter might lead some to identify additional tea leaves to read about the various criminal justice perspectives embraced by various members of the Roberts Court.

December 15, 2014 at 10:46 AM | Permalink

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Advice for the hiring of government employees:

As long as the intentions of an ignorant government employee are good, nothing can hold them back. Therefore, choose the ones that are less educated, i.e., publicly indoctrinated.

I can give a similar example: a LE officer pulls someone over for doing 34 mph on a road where the speed limit says 35 mph. He can do a "legal" search because he doesn't understand the law, an honest mistake. Whatever he finds in the search is therefore admissible, because we can see his intentions were right, obviously.

Kind of like our recent selections for the Supreme Court. How can you go wrong?

Posted by: albeed | Dec 15, 2014 4:28:23 PM

I should be stunned, but I'm not. This is the same Supreme Court that bought into the argument that cops have probable cause to search a car because of a dog that can smell drugs that aren't there.

Posted by: C.E. | Dec 15, 2014 11:38:59 PM

just more proof these totally useless traitors have outlived their reason to live.

really loved this!

"Under this standard, a search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action includes a reasonable factual mistake. An officer might, for example, stop a motorist for traveling alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, only to discover upon approaching the car that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat. The driver has not violated the law, but neither has the officer violated the Fourth Amendment."

actually you fuckups! unless the ONLY thing he did was walk back to his fucking car upon seeing that THREE people were in the car. He has from that point on conducted an illegal search and now liable for summary execution.

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 16, 2014 12:21:11 AM

I agree with rodsmith about the uselessness of the Supreme Court these days. Too much power and control will be given to cops, who will take advantage of this "mistake/oops" ruling.

Posted by: Book38 | Dec 16, 2014 7:04:53 AM

I don't understand the dog comment. A "reasonable" search doesn't mean the grounds of the search is correct. It is that it was "reasonable." When "beyond a reasonable doubt" at times results in mistakes, "reasonable" will. I was not aware, e.g., the entering a home based on a valid warrant that turned out to be based on reasonable but wrong info would require tossing drugs found in plain view on the dining room table.

I was not "stunned" at all. I think Sotomayor very well might be right, but it very well might be "reasonable" to allow police to in good faith stop a car based on a perfectly reasonable interpretation of an opaque traffic law. Anyone listening to the oral argument should not be stunned at all that Fisher lost -- the justices as a while clearly didn't think much of his argument, even one or more of the liberals doubtful.

As the majority notes, there is precedent for this sort of position, and it was deemed reasonable at least by some states. Again, I think Sotomayor's position very well might be right. I just don't think that is the same thing as being "shocked" by the alternative. These cases are often not so black/white as all that.

Finally, the opinion requires a reasonable mistake. If a speed limit is 40 and the speed the person was going was 35, it is obvious the person was not breaking the law. As noted by the concurrence, there are limits here. Again, we can not like something w/o stretching it to be more absurd than it is. I assume we can.

Posted by: Joe | Dec 16, 2014 9:56:57 AM

i'm sure they didn't those useless traitors have not seen an exemption they didn't like in 200 years.

as for this!

" I was not aware, e.g., the entering a home based on a valid warrant that turned out to be based on reasonable but wrong info would require tossing drugs found in plain view on the dining room table."

guess what since their reason to be in the home was founded on bullshit or mistakes. They legally had no business in the home to be able to see what was in "plain sight"

another bullshit exemption.

sorry but 99% of those exemptions were put in place when the officer on the spot was hours; days or weeks from supervison or a judge. Now they are illegal based on the fact they can have a LEGAL search warrant in min's. the rule now should be NO warrant. No search.

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 16, 2014 11:32:12 AM

Warrant, Warrant, we don't need no stinking warrant.

That's what happens when the judges are in bed with those who police us. The warrants are almost always automatically issued and never questioned anyway.

Posted by: albeed | Dec 16, 2014 7:55:50 PM

From Jerman v Carlisle and the Supreme Court:

Held:
The bona fide error defense in §1692 k(c)does not apply to a violation resulting from a debt
collector’s mistaken interpretation of the legal requirements of the FDCPA.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Dec 18, 2014 6:54:58 AM


The dissent , to me , makes more sense •
We hoi poloi are presumed to know the law , even though it may not be our duty to enforce the law •

Why ought an LEO whose job duties include enforcement of traffic law be excused from not knowing traffic law ?

Posted by: Docile Jim Brady @Bend, OR 97702-3212 | Dec 18, 2014 10:54:41 AM

They shouldn't Jim. In fact and law that these two-faced shits. love to say "Ignorance of the law is no excuse."

sorry they should be held to a HIGHER standard and any proven ignorance of the law they are enforcing should bring criminal charges.

Assuming they haven't pissed of a citizen who has decided to exercise his/her 2nd amendment right to simply blow the dumb shit away.

Posted by: rodsmith | Dec 19, 2014 3:17:22 AM

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