The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a police officer can make a traffic stop for the wrong reason so long as they have a “reasonable” understanding of the law they are enforcing, NBC News reported on Monday.
“To be reasonable is not to be perfect,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s 8-1 decision. “And so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.'”
The case concerned the 2009 arrest of Nicholas Heien near Dobson, North Carolina. Sgt. Matt Darisse pulled Heien over for having only one working brake light, then found a bag of cocaine while searching his vehicle and charged him with attempted drug trafficking. However, the state only requires motorists to have one brake light working at any time. Heien’s attorneys argued that this made Darisse’s search unlawful.
Roberts wrote that the ruling “does not discourage officers from learning the law,” because the Fourth Amendment only covers “objectively reasonable” errors from police.
Justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg filed separate concurring opinions. Justice Sonia Sotomayor filed the only dissent, arguing that the ruling meant “further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties” at a time when that protection has already been deteriorated.
“One wonders how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening, and humiliating encounters could do so,” Sotomayor wrote. “In addition to these human consequences—including those for communities and for their relationships with the police—permitting mistakes of law to justify seizures has the perverse effect of preventing or delaying the clarification of the law.”
Watch NBC News’ report, as posted online on Monday, below.
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