Law enforcement now can pull motorists over and search their vehicles for almost any reason, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in December 2014 that has led to a rash of shocking police stops.
To make matters worse, under the case, Heien v. North Carolina, motorists can now be detained and searched even if the officer ended up being wrong about the law, The Marshall Project reported. The Project is keeping a running tally of the most outrageous stops upheld by the courts.
Under Heien, an officer can search a car even if he was wrong about the law if the court determines he made a “reasonable” legal mistake. It’s a huge loophole that allows police to make huge mistakes on the job, provided they had good intentions.
Off The Grid News reported on the case in December.
Some of the more troubling stops that have been decided in court since Heien include:
Being stopped for a legal trailer hitch. Jose Gaytan was stopped and searched near Chenoa, Illinois. because of a large ball-type trailer hitch, which officers claimed violated the state’s vehicle code because it obscured the license plate. But the law allows such trailer hitches, a lower court judge and the Illinois Supreme Court ruled. “The only thing it’s obstructing is the little thing at the bottom that says Land of Lincoln or whatever,” the trial court judge noted. But even though courts said the officer was wrong about the law, they ruled that the mistake by the cop was “reasonable” and upheld drug charges against Gaytan.
Being stopped for legally entering the intersection on a yellow light. Robert Alan Wilson was driving a Chevrolet Malibu in Kansas City when the traffic light turned yellow. He entered the intersection and turned left, and was pulled over by a police officer. His action was legal, as the court of appeals noted: “We agree that simply entering an intersection on a yellow light is not — in and of itself — a legitimate basis for a traffic stop.” But because the officer found drugs and because he thought Wilson could have stopped prior to the intersection, the stop was perfectly legal.
Being stopped for legal air freshener. Richard Houghton Jr. was pulled over in East Troy, Wisconsin, because a police officer noticed that he had no front license plate on his car and an air freshener hanging from his rear view mirror. It was perfectly legal for Houghton not to have a front license plate and to use an air freshener (the cop argued it obstructed the driver’s view), yet the Wisconsin State Supreme Court upheld his conviction on drug possession charges. During the stop the officer found marijuana in Houghton’s car.
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Nor is it just motorists who have to worry about being stopped. On June 5, the San Diego County Superior Court’s Appellate Division ruled that it was admissible for police to stop Felipe Campuzano simply for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk at a slow speed. The municipal code the officers were enforcing bans riding on the sidewalk in front of commercial businesses. Campuzano was riding in front of an empty store. The court had initially thrown out a drug case against Campuzano but reinstated it after the Supreme Court’s Heien decision.
Some are warning of a double standard, the Marshall Project noted: The public is expected to know the law, while police officers can get away with being ignorant of it.
The new legal precedent has its critics within the judicial realm.
“As soon as you get into your car, even before you turn the ignition key, you have subjected yourself to intense police scrutiny. So dense is the modern web of motor vehicle regulations that every motorist is likely to get caught in it every time he drives to the grocery store,” wrote D. Arthur Kelsey, then a judge on Virginia’s Court of Criminal Appeals and now a Virginia Supreme Court justice. Kelsey made the comments in a dissent.
Kelsey expressed concern that under the new precedent, all it takes is an officer to use “magic words such as ‘I thought … I believed … I mistakenly believed … I suspected … I mistakenly suspected” to give a court a ‘reasonable’ explanation for the wrong traffic stop.
What do you think about the new precedent? Should a conviction stand if the officer was mistaken about the law? Share your thoughts in the section below: