Most of us have learned through experience that what you don’t know can hurt you. In legal matters, ignorance of the law is rarely ever an allowable excuse. But does this same principle apply to police officers?
If an officer initiates a traffic stop for something that was neither illegal nor dangerous, is that stop valid? If not, does it matter what the officer discovers during the stop? This is the basis for an important case that will go before the U.S. Supreme Court later this year. It could have an impact on future drunk driving cases here in West Virginia and around the country.
In April 2009, a law enforcement officer in North Carolina pulled over two men driving in a Ford Escort. Only one of the vehicle’s brake lights had lit up and the officer initiated the stop based on what he thought was a violation. At some point during the stop, the two men consented to a vehicle search and the officer discovered cocaine.
As it turns out, driving with one functional brake light is legal in North Carolina. Should the stop (and subsequent search) be considered valid if the law enforcement officer acted on his own ignorance of the law?
The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the stop was valid, and the issue will go before the U.S. Supreme Court in October of this year. Groups including the American Civil Liberties Union are urging the Court to overturn the decision and to rule that the stop was invalid. The ACLU and others argue that citizens are expected to know and to obey the law, and law enforcement officials should be held to at least the same standard.
If you have been charged with driving under the influence, the details matter. Serious mistakes on the part of police could prove to be important in your criminal defense strategy. An experienced attorney will examine your case and may find ways to challenge the evidence against you.
Source: TheNewspaper.com, "US Supreme Court To Rule On Cops Who Get Law Wrong," Aug. 4, 2014