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In NC Case, US Supreme Court Rules On 'Reasonable' Police Mistake

United States Supreme Court chamber

What started with a busted tail light in North Carolina has now led to a U.S. Supreme Court decision on what constitutes a reasonable mistake by a police officer. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police can in some cases pull someone over even if they're mistaken in believing that person broke the law.

In 2009, a Surry County sheriff pulled over a car about 45 miles northwest of Winston-Salem because the car's right brake light was out. The car's owner, Nicholas Heien, consented to a search, and the sheriff found cocaine.

A state appeals court later ruled that traffic stop was based on a misunderstanding of North Carolina law, which only requires one working brake light.

But in an 8-1 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has now ruled the officer's mistake was "reasonable," so it did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts notes the North Carolina statute on brake lights isn't very clear.

Roberts also warns police against feigning ignorance to get away with searches. He writes, "an officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce."