Mind you, I don’t believe in that title. It matters as much as any Amendment (and, in fact, much more so than many Amendments). The Supreme Court, however, thinks otherwise:
In a decision issued this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the police in a case arising from an officer’s “mistake of law.” At issue in Heien v. North Carolina was a 2009 traffic stop for a single busted brake light that led to the discovery of illegal drugs inside the vehicle. According to state law at the time, however, motor vehicles were required only to have “a stop lamp,” meaning that the officer did not have a lawful reason for the initial traffic stop because it was not a crime to drive around with a single busted brake light. Did that stop therefore violate the 4th Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable search and seizure? Writing today for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts held that it did not. “Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable,” Roberts declared, “the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.”
A man driving in North Carolina was stopped illegally due to a cop’s ignorance. Let’s presume that the cop was genuinely ignorant of the law. (I fully accept such a premise, actually.) That does not mean that this interaction between citizen and state was entered into justly. For that to be the case, there are only a few ways it can happen: 1) if the man was suspected of committing a crime or of being in the act of committing a crime or of imminently committing a crime; the basis here is reasonable suspicion (it’s a low bar); 2) if the man was suspected of committing a civil infraction (such as a traffic violation – which, except for things such as criminal speeding or DUI, generally are not crimes); or 3) if a cop just starts talking to him and he decides to engage with the him/her. In this case, while the man did consent to his vehicle being searched (ya know, like an idiot), he did not consent to the initial interaction with the ignorant cop. The beginning of the interaction was initiated illegally, so that should have invalidated everything thereafter. Of course, it didn’t. We have a very bad Supreme Court. And an often unjust world. True justice here would have not only seen this case thrown out, but the cop would have been fired and prosecuted under some sort of color of law statute. But this is America. The case was upheld and I’m sure the cop will get a promotion soon (presuming he hasn’t already).
Aside from the violation of the Fourth Amendment, the really scary thing here is the power it gives to an already powerful police state. Everyone knows if a cop wants to pull a person over, that person will be pulled over. (I have a one black friend who has been pulled over close to 30 times in about 2 years. I’ve been in his car; he isn’t a reckless driver. He has clearly been targeted, and his “infractions” have clearly been fabricated. Even as a white guy, I’ve been targeted (albeit for different reasons). It hasn’t happened since I went from a rusty 20 year old car to a 5-6 year old car, but I’ve been pulled over several times for my license plate lights being out. The cops were lying each time. I was stopped for driving a car common to a low socioeconomic class while looking younger than I am. It’s that simple.) But now the police don’t even need to worry about whether or not they have a legitimate reason. So long as they claim to have pulled someone over for what seems like it could be an infraction, the courts will uphold it. Just imagine this: A longtime resident of, say, California moves to, say, Maine and becomes a cop. In California it’s illegal to talk on a handheld device while driving whereas it’s legal in Maine. It’s plausible this new Maine cop might pull someone over for talking on the phone. And there isn’t a damn thing anyone can do about this blatantly unconstitutional stop. Nothing.
Let’s extend this to Terry stops. These are stops where the police suspect a person of some sort of criminal activity (outside a moving vehicle, such as while walking), but they don’t have any probable cause to arrest. What stops the police from extending the principles they made up for this recent case to Terry stops? A person may be stopped by a cop for some completely legal action. The cop might then pat the person down ‘for officer safety’, soon discovering drugs or a gun. I know some statists will cheer and say that’s great, but fuck them. That’s terrible. A person should never be stopped for zero reason, much less searched. The government hasn’t the right; it’s a massive danger to the citizenry to give the government such rights. But will the courts throw out all charges? It’s doubtful. If they follow the logic made up here, there is absolutely nothing to stop them from allowing the police to make all sorts of ‘honest’ mistakes in order to stop and search people. It’s not as if the police won’t lie – hell, that’s part of the job description – but at least they needed to come up with a plausible lie. Before this ruling there were always those oddball cases were a cop locked himself into a description of events that might get a case tossed. Not anymore. Now his fuck-ups and/or lies just need to seem like genuine oopsie-daisies.
I can’t say I’m surprised at this, though. As soon as I read about this case a few months ago, I explicitly told a friend that the Court would rule this way. I didn’t think it would be quite this lopsided, but there was never any doubt. This Court hates the Fourth Amendment. They aren’t consistent with the Constitution, but at least they’re consistent with being shitbags.