Insisting that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” when it comes to police officers being permitted to violate American citizens’ constitutional rights, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hold law enforcement officials accountable to knowing and abiding by the rule of law. Specifically, in filing an amicus curiae brief in Heien v. State of North Carolina, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that courts must suppress evidence seized as a result of an improper stop of a motorist even though the police officer reasonably, but mistakenly, believed he was authorized by law to stop the vehicle.
“It’s a toss up which is worse–law enforcement officials who know nothing about the laws they have sworn to uphold, support and defend, or a constitutionally illiterate citizenry so clueless about their rights that they don’t even know when those rights are being violated,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “Thomas Jefferson recognized that an educated citizenry is the only real assurance that freedom will survive. At the very least, anyone taking public office or working for the government in any capacity–whether it’s a police officer, a school teacher, or a member of Congress–should be required to have a working knowledge of the Constitution, particularly the Bill of Rights, and should be held accountable for upholding their precepts. At heart, that’s what this Heien case is really all about: ensuring that ignorance of the law, especially the Fourth Amendment, does not become a ready excuse for government officials to routinely violate the law.”
In April 2009, a Surry County (N.C.) law enforcement officer stopped a car traveling on Interstate 77, allegedly because of a brake light which at first failed to illuminate and then flickered on. The officer mistakenly believed that state law prohibited driving a car with one broken brake light. In fact, the state traffic law requires only one working brake light. Nevertheless, operating under a mistaken understanding of the law, during the course of the stop, the officer asked for permission to search the car. Nicholas Heien, the owner of the vehicle, granted his consent to a search. Upon the officer finding cocaine in the vehicle, he arrested and charged Heien with trafficking.
Prior to his trial, Heien moved to suppress the evidence seized in light of the fact that the officer’s pretext for the stop was erroneous and therefore unlawful. Although the trial court denied the motion to suppress evidence, the state court of appeals determined that since the police officer had based his initial stop of the car on a mistaken understanding of the law, there was no valid reason for the stop in the first place.
On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that even though the officer was wrong in concluding that the inoperable brake light was an offense, because the officer’s mistake was a “reasonable” one, the stop of the car did not violate the Fourth Amendment and the evidence resulting from the stop did not need to be suppressed. In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn against allowing government agents to “benefit” from their mistakes of law, deliberate or otherwise, lest it become an incentive for abuse. Affiliate attorney Christopher F. Moriarty assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.