Today, the Supreme Court ruled that police can search and seize vehicles even after unlawful stops in some situations.
In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that, in some cases, police can conduct a vehicle search and seizure after unlawful stops. In order for police to stop a vehicle, they must have reasonable suspicion that an offense was committed, per the Fourth Amendment.
Today's ruling allowed for some Fourth Amendment wiggle room. If a police officer has a "reasonable misunderstanding" of the law that leads to a police stop, the subsequent search and seizure is still viable even if the stop was actually unlawful.
The ruling settled a disagreement over a North Carolina traffic stop turned drug trafficking conviction case. In North Carolina, the law says that you are only legally required to have one functioning brake light, but a police officer pulled over the defendant citing that one of his brake lights was out – an unlawful stop. During that stop, police searched the defendant's car and found cocaine that led to a trafficking conviction.
An appeals court in North Carolina ruled that the stop was unlawful, and therefore the evidence from the search and seizure should be dismissed. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court – and as of today, the U.S. Supreme Court – disagreed.
This new legal grey area not only creates constitutional ambiguity, but also makes it easier for police to search your vehicle. What exactly constitutes a "reasonable mistake" or "reasonable misunderstanding" of the law? The job of a police officer is to enforce the law – difficult to do appropriately if they misunderstand it.
According to Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion, the North Carolina statute dictating brake light requirements is confusing, which is why it was reasonable for the law enforcement officer in this case to misinterpret it. Confusing or not, the ruling will now affect drivers and police officers nationwide.
The lone dissenter in the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, believes that any misinterpretation of the law, no matter how slight, should not compromise an individual's Fourth Amendment right to be free from unlawful searches and seizures. She believes this decision could further widen the rift between police and individuals, as well as create more legal confusion.