First Monday in October

It was the first Monday in October and that means the Supreme Court of the United Status (SCOTUS to all the cool kids) is back in session.

John, Antonin, Anthony, Clarence, Ruth, Stephen, Samuel, Sonia, and Elena are all back in black (robes) and ready to kick off the 2014-2015 judicial season.

There was definitely no lollygagging for this Gang of Nine as their first day back on the bench saw them hearing oral arguments in the case known as Heien v North Carolina.

This case is a Fourth Amendment case about the legality of a search that was based on a mistake.

The facts of the case are thus and thus. Mr. Heien was driving his car when he was stopped by a police office for having a broken brake light. The officer asked if he could search the car and Mr. Heien consented. Why he consented I’m not sure because the officer discovered drugs in the car and then arrested Mr. Heien for possession.

However, this is where the case takes a twist. Mr. Heien did some digging and found that in North Carolina it is not illegal to drive with a broken brake light so as long as least one other brake light is operational. Therefore, since Mr. Heien’s car was not in violation of state law, the officer had no right to stop him and subsequently search the car. The state makes the case that the officer made an honest mistake in not knowing all the minute details of North Carolinan traffic laws and that his mistake should be overlooked for the greater good of having found illegal narcotics in Mr Heien’s possession.

In other words, North Carolina is turning the adage on its head and stating that ignorance of the law is an excuse.

A few days as I read about this case, and before oral arguments, I would have predicted that the Court would rule 6-3 in favor of Mr. Heien. I based this prediction on the original adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse. If I can’t use the “Hey, I didn’t know it was illegal” card, then neither should an officer of the peace.

However, after reading the transcipt from the oral arguments, I am revising my prediction and now opine that the Court will rule 5-4 in favor of North Carolina.

I make this new assertion based on the fact that the lawyer representing the state produced a section of North Carolina law that stated that a car needed to have all of its originally equipped rear lamps in good working order. While that section conflicts with another section of state law, the “originally equipped” section is in state law, which means (to my un-legally trained mind) the police officer was correct in stopping Mr. Heien’s car because not all of the originally equipped lamps were in good working order.

We’ll see what happens when the Court makes it decision, but in the meantime, make sure all of your rear lamps are in good working order.

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