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U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on Fourth Amendment issues in NC drug case

When making traffic stops, police officers must follow and abide by certain procedural rules and laws. These laws exist to prevent officers from making indiscriminate and at-will traffic stops and help ensure that an individual's Fourth Amendment rights are not violated.

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects individuals from "unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government." While the purpose of the Fourth Amendment is clear, when it comes to traffic stops there may be questions about whether or not a police officer's actions were in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

A recent United States Supreme Court decision held that when officers make a reasonable mistake of law, the stop will still be allowed and no evidence will be suppressed.  In that case, the officer (from NC) erroneously believed that TWO brake lights were required when the actually only requred one.  The court allowed the stop, holding that the mistake was reasobable and the attorney's efforts to suppress the evidence (and dismiss the case) were not allowed.

Every state has laws related to what types of driving or vehicle-related infractions constitute a lawful or valid traffic stop. For example in North Carolina, a police officer may pull a driver over for speeding, weaving in and out of traffic lanes or for failing to signal a turn. Questions, however, often arise in cases where a police officer stops a driver who is driving in a high crime area or in response to an anonymous tip.

A recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court involved a North Carolina case in which the lawfulness of a traffic stop was called into question. The 2009 case involved a male driver who was pulled over by a police officer. Upon pulling the man over, the police officer indicated he had done so because the driver's vehicle had a broken tail light. Subsequently, the driver gave the officer permission to search his vehicle at which time cocaine was discovered.

In North Carolina, it's not illegal to have a broken tail light. Therefore, the argument was made that the evidence discovered in the subsequent search of the man's vehicle should not be admissible in court. The Supreme Court justices, however, did not agree with this defense.

Classifying the police officer's mistake as "reasonable", eight of the justices ruled the traffic stop did not violate the driver's Fourth Amendment rights. However, the dissenting opinion of one justice noted the danger and potential consequences involved in "permitting police to go ahead with a mistaken reading of the law".

Charlotte area residents who are facing criminal charges that resulted from a believed unlawful traffic stop would be wise to contact a criminal defense attorney.

Source: NPR.org, "Supreme Court Upholds North Carolina Traffic Stop," Nina Totenberg, Dec. 15, 2014

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