Ignorance of the Law

Ignorance of the law has never been a justifiable reason for committing a crime. Firstly, it holds people accountable for their actions whether or not they know the law. And secondly, it is difficult to prove or disprove someone’s knowledge of the law. The same, however, cannot be said when being arrested by law enforcement. Sometimes a law enforcement officer’s ignorance of the law does not prevent you from being arrested.

In the case of Heien v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court ruled that an officer’s mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable and did not invalidate a traffic stop. In the case, Nicholas Heien was pulled over in North Carolina for a broken tail light, even though a broken tail light is not a primary cause (nor against the law) to pull someone over in North Carolina. This traffic stop eventually led to the discovery of drugs and Heien’s arrest. Heien’s lawyer argued that since North Carolina state law only requires one “stop lamp” (dated language for break lights) to be working on the rear of the vehicle that there was no valid reason for the traffic stop. However, the Supreme Court ruled that since the 4th amendment “tolerates objectively reasonable mistakes” that the officer in this case had reasonable suspicion to pull over Nicholas Heien.

What does this mean? In the above case, an officer’s interpretation of a law was incorrect but since this mistake was “reasonable” the traffic stop and everything resulting from it was admissible in court. The problem is at what point does a “reasonable mistake” stop being permissible and become unlawful? These discrepancies between reasonable suspicion and unlawful traffic stops create a situation of uncertainty for Americans.

Take for example Virginia’s “Suspension of objects or alteration of vehicle so as to obstruct driver’s view” Section 46.2-1054. It states that, “It shall be unlawful for any person to drive a motor vehicle on a highway in the Commonwealth with any object or objects, other than a rear view mirror, sun visor, or other equipment of the motor vehicle… suspended from any part of the motor vehicle in such a manner as to obstruct the driver’s clear view of the highway through the windshield, the front side windows, or the rear window.” Many products are made to hang from the rear view mirror and there is only one way to figure out if they obstruct your view; to pull you over and physically look through your windshield. Since the law is already vaguely broad, you might just have to defend yourself in court just to prove your air freshener (or fuzzy dice) was not blocking your view.

Another example of a law that requires a traffic stop to find out if there is a violation are window tint laws. States all have different varying levels of acceptable tint on motor vehicles. To the naked eye it is difficult to accurately tell if a window tint is illegal, so law enforcement use a tint meter to measure it. You have to physically attach it to the window to get a reading and the only way to do that is to pull you over.  While the aforementioned laws might seem benign, in reality those minor infractions usually lead to other violations and penalties.

Whether the officer is in the right or the wrong, you will still have defend yourself in court, and with that comes unnecessary expenditures and headaches. Do not let ignorance of the law be the reason for your frustrations. And before the next time you go out driving make sure your tail lights work, just in case.