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The Supreme Court recently ruled that if a defendant is convicted of a crime that was discovered, based on being suspected of a crime that wasn’t really a crime, that conviction holds. Confused? Noah Feldman of Bloomberg News explains the case the addressed.

Heien v. North Carolina, had its origins in a weird fact pattern that I described when the case was argued back in October. In brief, the police stopped the defendant’s car because it had a rear brake light out. A subsequent search revealed drugs in the car. But a North Carolina court later determined that state law doesn’t prohibit driving with a failed brake light, so long as at least one is working.

That meant Heien’s case before the Supreme Court was about just one question: whether the evidence was admissible even though the police officer who stopped the car had not observed anything that was actually illegal. The Supreme Court’s answer was yes. It reasoned that a police officer’s “reasonable” mistake of law is akin to an officer’s “reasonable mistake of fact.” And it thought it was reasonable for the officer not to know that state law technically only prohibited driving with no brake lights at all.

Individuals are convicted of crimes even if they didn’t know it was actually a crime. The Constitution affords citizens protection from cops who illegal conduct searches. The court’s ruling upheld the search Heien’s car even though the car was searched based on something that he shouldn’t have been stopped on in the first place. The cop who stopped him was ignorant of the actual law, but the search was deemed legal.

Justice Sonja Sotomayer, the only one who disagreed with the courts ruling, said it was a further erosion of that constitutional protection against illegal searches.

In her view, the holding had the effect of “further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.” And she asked rhetorically “how a citizen seeking to be law-abiding and to structure his or her behavior to avoid these invasive, frightening, and humiliating encounters could do so.” Sotomayor also pointed out that there was no reason to think the criminal justice system would somehow crumble if police mistakes of law were disallowed.

This case isn’t an exception. In Wisconsin, prosecutors launched a three year John Doe probe, investigating a crime that was later ruled by two judges not to be a crime. One of the groups being investigated filed a federal lawsuit against the prosecutors for violating their free speech. The Wisconsin Supreme Court is scheduled to take up several cases addressing the investigation. One of the questions they will answer is whether the prosecutors were actually investigating anything criminal.



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