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The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a police officer's mistaken idea of the law doesn't make an arrest and a search invalid, as long as the officer's understanding of the law was reasonable. The case evolved from a traffic stop in 2009, in which Nicholas Heien was pulled over on Interstate 77 in North Carolina by a county sheriff's deputy because one of his brake lights was out. After getting permission to search the car, the deputy found a baggie of cocaine, and Heien was charged with drug trafficking.
But it turned out North Carolina law did not require cars to have two brake lights. The state law said they must have "a" stop lamp on the rear and elsewhere referred to "the" stop lamp, meaning the deputy was apparently wrong about the law. Heien's lawyer — backed by civil liberties groups — said if a law wasn't being broken, there was no authority to arrest him or conduct a search. But by a 8-1 vote, the Supreme Court said the arrest and the search were valid, even if the officer was wrong about the law. The Fourth Amendment bars "unreasonable" searches and seizures, the court said. "To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials," said the opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts.
The lone dissenter, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, said an officer's mistake about the law, no matter how reasonable, "cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary" to justify an arrest. The nation's courts were sharply divided on this issue, though most said if an officer is wrong, the arrest doesn't count.
— Pete Williams