Ignorance of The Law Is No Excuse – Unless You’re A Cop

Ignorance of The Law Is No Excuse – Unless You’re A Cop

For those of you who read my posts or know me well, the following statement shouldn’t surprise you: I am very passionate about protecting peoples’ constitutional rights. These rights guarantee specific protections from the government. We know this, because the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights explains:

The Conventions of a number of the States having at the time of their adoption of the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.

One of the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. According to the Fourth Amendment:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.

It is well-settled law that a search or seizure is automatically unreasonable–and therefore in violation of the Fourth Amendment–if law enforcement conducts a search or seizure without a warrant or a warrant exception (e.g., you consent to the search). Further, a mistake of law makes a search or seizure unconstitutional.

For example, in 2014, the Wisconsin Supreme Court issued its opinion in State v Brown. The case revolved around an officer performing a traffic stop after observing an unlit bulb in a car’s tail lamp. The officer thought the law required ALL external bulbs on a vehicle be in working condition. Contrary to the officer’s understanding, the law actually required that a (as in one) tail lamp emit a red light visible from 500 feet behind the vehicle during hours of darkness. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the officer made a mistake of law. Because the vehicle was equipped with one functioning red tail lamp, the driver did not break the law. Therefore, the resulting seizure was unconstitutional, as the officer’s mistake of law did not justify the traffic stop.

About six months later, the United States Supreme Court delivered its opinion in Heien v. North Carolina. That case revolved around a traffic stop initiated by an officer who witnessed a car with one faulty brake light. The North Carolina Court of Appeals decided that the traffic stop was invalid, because the law only required a vehicle to be “equipped with a stop lamp.” Because the car had a (as in one) stop lamp, the North Carolina Court of Appeals decided the officer made a mistake of law. Therefore, based on the officer’s mistake of law, the traffic stop was deemed unconstitutional.

On appeal, the United States Supreme Court overturned the North Carolina Court of Appeals’ decision. In its ruling, the Supreme Court forgave the officer’s mistake of law. Moreover, the Supreme Court endorsed the view that an officer’s reasonable, objective mistake of law does not constitute an unconstitutional mistake of law.

This erosion of the protections guaranteed by Fourth Amendment should worry you. The last time I checked, the Bill of Rights afforded protection from the government–not for the government. The Fourth Amendment specifically protects the “right of the people,” not the right of the government to make mistakes.

Before you decide whether the Supreme Court’s decision accurately upholds the protections contained in the Fourth Amendment, consider the following hypothetical:

You’re driving a car on a rural road. You think the speed limit is 55 miles per hour. Like a perfectly law-abiding citizen, you’re traveling exactly 55 miles per hour. To your dismay, you check your rear-view mirror and see flashing lights. You immediately pull over to the side of the road. The officer approaches you and in a stern voice says, “I pulled you over for going 55 in a 45.” You breathe a sigh of relief and explain, “I’m sorry officer. I didn’t see a speed limit sign, so I thought the speed limit was 55. Can you cut me a break and give me a warning, please?” The unsympathetic officer gathers your driver’s license and insurance card and strolls back to his squad car. Fifteen minutes later, he returns to your car with your driver’s license, insurance card, and a $228 speeding ticket.

Do you think the Supreme Court would forgive your reasonable, objective mistake of law?