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Supreme Court: officer’s reasonable mistake of law doesn’t destroy probable cause

When building a criminal defense case, it is always important for defendants to work with an experienced attorney in evaluating the way police investigated the case. This is especially true in cases involving drug charges, which often involve search issues. In some cases, the legal issues surrounding searches can become significant enough that they need to be appealed. It doesn't happen very often that search issues need to be appealed to the highest court in the land, but that is what happened recently.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this month in a case involving the question of whether a defendant may exclude from trial incriminating evidence which police obtained after making a mistaken car stop. The case, which is out of North Carolina, involves an individual who was charged with drug trafficking after police stopped on the mistaken belief that it is illegal to drive a vehicle with a faulty brake light. During the stop, officers obtained consent to search the vehicle and found cocaine. Technically, though, driving a vehicle with a faulty brake light isn't against North Carolina law, so officers had no legal basis to make the stop. That, at least, is what was argued. 

The issue arose because of the fact that criminal defendants are often able to exclude from trial evidence which is illegally obtained by police. Officers must have a valid reason to stop a motorist. Usually the reason is that there is some sort of traffic violation. Once the stop is made, officers can gather additional evidence to determine whether there has been a criminal violation.  

In this case, the Supreme Court ultimately came down with a decision that the evidence couldn't be excluded from trial because the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable. In other words, the court ruled that an officer’s reasonable misunderstanding of the law does not vitiate probable cause.

We will continue looking at this issue in our next post, and offer some comments on how an attorney can help in cases where search issues come up.

Source: Fox News, “Supreme Court: Traffic stop, search OK despite misunderstanding of law,” Dec. 16, 2014.

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