Criminal Justice System

Ignorance (of the Law) is Bliss – Heien v. North Carolina Summary

“It has been repeatedly decided that [the Fourth Amendment] should receive a liberal construction, so as to prevent stealthy encroachment upon or gradual depreciation of the rights secured by them, by imperceptible practice of courts or by well-intentioned, but mistakenly overzealous, executive officers.”

                                                                                                     Gouled v. United States, 255 U.S. 298 (1921).

Well, so much for that.   In the recent case of Heien v. North Carolina (find it here) the U.S. Supreme Court has now decided that a police officer’s mistaken belief a stop is legal makes the stop, well, legal. In Heien, a police officer pulled someone over for what he thought was an offense (one bad taillight). Problem is, he was wrong – it was not an offense after all. Not to worry, though, says SCOTUS, because the mistake was reasonable.

What? Aside from pretty much trashing the quoted language above, let’s not forget this is the same court that has held time and again that ignorance of the law is no defense to criminal charges.[1] Now, so it would appear, the accused cannot use mistake of law as a shield, but police officers can use it as a spear. Doesn’t it seem a little backwards to hold those required to know the law for a living to a more lenient standard than laypeople on the street who rarely have any formal training in the law? Or, more importantly, doesn’t this give officers an excuse to be lackadaisical in their knowledge of the law? The Court struggles to minimize this possibility (“The Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes – whether of fact or of law – must be objectively reasonable”) but that doesn’t change the fact that the Court’s new, mirror-image interpretation of reasonableness in Fourth Amendment analysis does not seem to fit with the intentions of the Framers.

Now, instead of asking was the intrusion itself unreasonable, we are discerning whether the cop made a reasonable mistake when he did it. In order to uphold another drug conviction, the Court has now assigned us all the task of figuring out whether a cop’s ignorance of the law is reasonable or not. Nice.

The Framers intended the Fourth Amendment to protect “We The People,” not “They The Government.” But alas, the Court has taken yet another step in that very direction. Most people would consider it unreasonable for a police officer to be ignorant of the law.  One would think that our Framers would have agreed. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of the United States sees it differently.

So, ignorance of the law can indeed be blissful.

If you’re a cop.

[1]See, e.g., Ratzlaf v. United States, 510 U.S. 135, 149 (1994)(“We do not dishonor the venerable principle that ignorance of the law generally is no defense to a criminal charge.”).