By Sam Hananel
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will decide whether police have probable cause to make a traffic stop if it turns out the officer was mistaken in thinking the driver violated the law.
The justices on Monday said they will hear an appeal from a North Carolina man who claims his Fourth Amendment rights were violated when police pulled him over for having a burned-out brake light. The police officer ultimately found cocaine in the car and the driver and his passenger were convicted of drug trafficking.
A state appeals court ruled the stop was impermissible because state law only required a car to have one functioning brake light. But a divided North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, finding the stop was permitted if the officer's mistake about the law was reasonable enough to conduct a routine traffic stop.
The issue has split various state and federal appeals courts. To make a traffic stop, the Fourth Amendment typically requires police to have a reasonable suspicion that a traffic law has been violated. But some courts have held that as long as a police officer has a reasonable basis to believe a traffic violation was committed, a stop is constitutionally permissible even if it is later discovered there was no actual breach of the law.
Other courts have held that no matter how reasonable or understandable the mistake was, it can't justify a traffic stop. These courts have ruled that any evidence obtained from a stop based on a mistake of law is inadmissible in court.
The Supreme Court will hear argument in the case of Heien v. North Carolina, 13-604, in its new term beginning in October.
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Copyright 2014 The Associated Press