Ignorance of the law is no excuse, except for police: Court

Advocates denounce ruling that creates double-standard for cops and citizens

It is a well-known fact that ignorance of the law is never a valid defense argument for people who have been accused of a crime. Likewise, law enforcement agencies are expected to know the laws they enforce. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court, in a case with roots in North Carolina, recently ruled that in some instances police can be ignorant of the law. According to WCNC News, the court ruled that a drug crime conviction will stand despite the fact that the 'offense' that eventually led to the discovery of the drug offense was not actually an offense according to state law.

Non-existent traffic violation

The North Carolina case began when a police officer pulled over a car for having only one functioning brake light. The officer admitted that he suspected the driver had committed a crime because he was "driving stiffly" and that the traffic violation was only a pretext to search the vehicle. After issuing the owner of the vehicle a citation, the officer then requested to search the car and the owner gave his consent to the search. In the trunk, the officer found a sandwich bag of cocaine and the owner was charged with, and later convicted of, drug trafficking.

Such a case may seem straightforward enough except for one key problem: having only one functioning brake light, which was the reason the accused was stopped in the first place, is not actually against the law in North Carolina. State law simply requires that at least one brake light be working.

Was search illegal?

Because the defendant was pulled over for an offense that was non-existent in North Carolina, he argued that the subsequent search of his vehicle by the officer was illegal. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against throwing out the conviction, arguing that officers are allowed to make "reasonable mistakes" in the laws they enforce.

That ruling sits uneasily with many people, especially at a time when police overreach has become such a hot topic. As Bloomberg points out, the ruling essentially creates a double-standard for police and citizens. When a citizen is charged with an offense, for example, he cannot argue that he was "reasonably" unaware of the offense's illegality. Thus, it is troubling that police officers can use a non-existent law as a pretext for searching a person's vehicle and, potentially, charging them with a more serious offense.

Defending your rights

As the sole dissenting justice in the ruling noted, allowing police to make mistakes about the law is a worrying erosion of everybody's Fourth Amendment rights. For people who are facing a criminal charge, it is important to ensure that their rights are upheld. By talking to a criminal defense attorney, those accused of an offense will have the help they need to make sure their rights are defended and that their freedoms and livelihoods are not unduly damaged.