The law as it relates to what constitutes a valid search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution is a balancing act between the individual’s right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures and the ability of police to apprehend people they believe — sometimes even mistakenly — of having been engaged in criminal conduct.
Despite more than two centuries of legal interpretations on different aspects of this balancing act, the courts in Oklahoma and other states must still sometimes grapple with the issue of whether a police officer’s mistaken belief that technically might violate a person’s Fourth Amendment rights can still form the basis for a legally valid search and seizure. Occasionally, such a question makes it all the way the US Supreme Court.
One such case decided in December of last year serves to illustrate the ongoing need to define whether a police officer’s conduct in making a search and seizure passes constitutional muster. The case, Heien v. North Carolina, involved the arrest and conviction of two men for drug trafficking in connection with a vehicle stop that was made ostensibly in connection with a broken brake light. Although the stop initially had nothing to do with suspicion of drug activity, the demeanor of the car’s occupants led the police officer to perform a permission-based search of the vehicle that uncovered a quantity of cocaine.
The constitutional question arose not in connection with the drugs, but rather the brake light. The state law requires only that a vehicle have a “stop lamp” — not “lamps”. Thus, the defendants argued that the police officer due to his misunderstanding of the applicable law had no reasonable grounds to stop the car because it still had a working brake light. The trial court refused to suppress the drug evidence based on this argument; the state court of appeals, however, found it persuasive and reversed; the state supreme court then reversed the court of appeals before the issue finally came before the US Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court held that indeed, a police officer’s “reasonable suspicion” to stop a vehicle can still be reasonable even if it is based on a mistaken comprehension the scope of a law. In particular, the Court refused to distinguish between a police officer’s reasonable mistake of fact or mistake of law: either way, it seems, as long as the mistake was “objectively reasonable” as opposed to, say, a careless or sloppy mistake, then such a mistake does not preclude the officer’s suspicion from being reasonable.
Issues of what constitutes reasonable suspicion on the part of a police officer, and in turn whether a search or seizure that leads to an arrest from evidence that the officer finds is not unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment, must be examined carefully in each individual case. Even though the Court in Heien allowed some leeway to an officer who makes a “reasonable” mistake of law, that still leaves open for consideration whether the officer’s mistake was in fact reasonable under the circumstances.
Anyone charged with a crime resulting from a search and seizure will need legal counsel that is well aware of the factual and legal issues connected with Oklahoma search and seizure law as well as at the federal level, and who stays abreast of the latest court interpretations of these laws. The attorneys at the Hunsucker Legal Group are highly trained and constantly research recent case law to better serve and protect our clients. Call today at 405-231-5600 for your free consultation.