DUI Defense Based on Bad Traffic Stops Takes a Hit From The Supreme Court

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As a criminal defense attorney, and a DUI lawyer, you are always concerned about case law that cuts away at the the protections afforded us under the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution. By way of review, the 4th Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures of themselves or their property. Any time a police officer makes a traffic stop, the stop must be reasonable otherwise it is a violation of your 4th Amendment rights. This is where the concept of probable cause comes in. If an officer has probable cause to believe a violation of the law has occurred then he has a reasonable basis to stop you for a reasonable amount of time.

Supreme Court Allows for Traffic Stops Based on Mistaken Understanding of the Law, if Reasonable

This week the Supreme Court ruled on a case called Heien v. North Carolina. In this case a car was pulled over for having a broken tail light. In the course of the stop the police officer becomes suspicious due to the behavior of the occupants of the car and asked for consent to search the car. Upon searching the vehicle the police officer found cocaine and arrested the defendant. The defendant filed suppression motion arguing that the officer did not have probable cause to stop him as it is not a violation of the law in North Carolina to have one brake light that does not work. The Suppression motion was denied by the trial court. Later the case was appealed and the appeals court reversed the trial court based on the fact that the North Carolina state law only requires one working brake lamp.

This week the Supreme Court reversed the Appellate court. The Supreme Court held that while the officer was mistaken about the North Carolina law when he pulled the car over, that because his mistake was reasonable, that the stop was valid. The court reiterated that the 4th Amendment only calls for reasonableness not perfection, and that under these circumstances, the mistaken understanding of North Carolina law was nonetheless reasonable.

Application of This Ruling on Sacramento Criminal and DUI Cases

This case is somewhat concerning from a criminal defense standpoint in that it seems to enlarge the grounds upon which an officer can stop you, to include violations which do not actually exist, so long as the officer’s stop seemed to be based on a reasonable belief that his basis for the stop was based on an actual California Vehicle Code statute.

On the other hand, this ruling seems consistent with the Mistake of Fact Defense available in which someone commits a crime with the reasonable, but mistaken, belief that what they were doing was not illegal. This defense is comforting in that it demonstrates that the law is sensitive to one’s intent when they act. So, under that analysis this new ruling does at least seem to be based on consistent logic.
I guess the overriding concern is that the 4th Amendment get increasingly limited over time, and we move closer and closer to a police state in which law enforcement can do what they please.

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