In an 8-1 decision some are accusing of applying a double standard, the Supreme Court, led by John Roberts, has decided that the police can used seized evidence even when they gain said evidence by a misinterpretation or misapplication of the law, as long as the misinterpretation is “reasonable”:
The ruling came in a North Carolina case in which a police officer pulled over Nicholas Heien’s car because the right brake light was out, although the left one still worked. A consensual search led to the discovery of cocaine in the trunk.
A state appeals court said the stop was impermissible because a quirky state law only requires a car to have one functioning brake light. But the state’s highest court reversed, finding that the officer’s mistaken reading of the law was reasonable.
The Supreme Court agreed, finding that the Fourth Amendment requires police to act reasonably, but not perfectly. Roberts said that just as a police officer’s mistake of fact can justify a traffic stop, a reasonable misunderstanding about the law can also satisfy the Constitution.
In other words, there are few cases when evidence would be impermissible. Especially given the over-arching nature of traffic laws, people can be pulled over for nearly anything, and the initial reason for pulling someone over doesn’t have to relate at all to the eventual charges police bring against you. You have to obey the law. But police officers do not. Which is the essence of a double standard.
So, hypothetically, you could be pulled over because the police say your windows are too tinted. They check your windows and find them within the legal parameters, because unbeknownst to them, your state actually overturned all window tint laws (again, this is hypothetical). But a “reasonable” suspicion causes them then to say you might have drugs, so they search your car. They don’t find drugs, but they do notice your children’s car seats are expired. So they take away your children. The case goes all the way to the Supreme Court (because they apparently have nothing better to do), and they decide in the end that police can pretty much do whatever they want.
I’m not recommending that people should be trafficking illegal drugs, but I would point out that this new ruling gives police even more latitude to do as they please. For instance, what if you are filming the police, and they say it is illegal. That is not true in most states, but if they then attempt to arrest you and you resist arrest, it doesn’t really matter what the letter of the law is, since now you are “obstructing justice” or whatever. And they could just shoot you or beat you to death, and that’s perfectly justified.
And if a citizen is wrong about or ignorant of the law, by the way, this doesn’t let him off the hook. This double standard is not helpful. It should trouble us that citizens in this country have almost no recourse left for resisting tyranny.