WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court opened its new term Monday pondering whether a police officer's misunderstanding of the law can justify a traffic stop that led to the seizure of illegal drugs.
Several of the justices questioned whether it was reasonable for the North Carolina officer to pull over a car because one of its two brake lights was burned out, even though a quirky state law requires only one light to be functional.
The stop led to a search and the discovery of cocaine in the trunk, but the high court's ultimate decision could lead to that evidence being excluded.
Arguments in the case took place shortly after the court announced its surprising decision to turn away appeals from five states seeking to prohibit same-sex marriages, paving the way for an immediate expansion of gay marriage.
This group of justices began its fifth year together, and Chief Justice John Roberts is at the start of his 10th year at the head of the high court. On tap for the term is an array of cases involving:
— Religious, employment and housing discrimination;
— The drawing of political districts in Alabama and Arizona;
— A dispute between Congress and the president over passports that is heavy with Middle East politics;
— The use of a law to prevent document shredding against a fisherman accused of throwing undersized red grouper overboard; and
— The prosecution of a self-styled rapper whose Facebook postings threatened his estranged wife, an FBI agent and area schools.
Monday's argument on the police action involves an appeal by Nicholas Heien, whose Ford Escort was pulled over when an officer saw that the right rear brake light wasn't working. The officer found cocaine during an ensuing search, and Heien was later convicted of drug trafficking.
The case tests whether the officer's mistaken understanding of the law makes the traffic stop unreasonable and the search a violation of Heien's constitutional rights. A divided state Supreme Court said the mistake was reasonable enough to justify the routine traffic stop and refused to toss out the drug evidence.
Heien's lawyer, Stanford Law School Professor Jeffrey Fisher, told the justices that "in a country dedicated to the rule of law, governmental officers should be presumed to know the law at least as well as the citizens."
Roberts asked him why not take reasonableness into account since the Fourth Amendment only protects against "unreasonable" searches and seizures.
Fisher responded that criminal law "is presumed to be definite and knowable."
Robert Montgomery, North Carolina's senior deputy attorney general, argued that the Fourth Amendment does not require police officers to be perfect.
"All that is required is that a police officer have a reasonable view of the facts and apply those facts to a reasonable understanding of the law." Montgomery said.
Justice Elena Kagan suggested officers should enforce the law as written and not push every law "to the furthest, furthest, furthest it could go."
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wondered how many people "have been stopped for one brake light that were asked to have their car searched and is that something as a society that we should be encouraging."
Montgomery said innocent people are stopped all the time when officers make reasonable mistakes of fact and then are let go when police realize there is no criminal offense. He said police should be given the same leeway when they make mistakes of law.
The Obama administration is siding with North Carolina in the case. Justice Department attorney Rachel Kovner argued that police officers can make stops if they reasonably believe a person committed a crime, even if it later turns out the officer was mistaken as to the law or the facts.
A decision in the case of Heien v. North Carolina, 14-604, should come by late spring.