Police are justified in making a traffic stop even if it turns out the officers are mistaken in thinking the driver broke the law, the Supreme Court ruled today. The Associated Press reports that in a North Carolina case, the justices said such a stop does not violate the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches. A police officer pulled over Nicholas Heien’s car near Dobson, N.C., because the right brake light was out, although the left one still worked. A search led to the discovery of cocaine in the trunk. A state appeals court said the stop was impermissible because state law requires a car only to have one functioning brake light.
The state’s highest court reversed the ruling, finding that the officer’s misunderstanding of law was reasonable. The Supreme Court agreed, 8 to 1. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that iot was “objectively reasonable for an officer … to think that Heien's faulty right brake light was a violation of North Carolina law. And because the mistake of law was reasonable, there was reasonable suspicion justifying the stop.” Dissenter Sonia Sotomayor said that “an officer's mistake of law, no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.”