The other day I was leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse up in Conroe after court and noticed a state trooper behind me. As I turned onto the main drag the trooper flipped on his lights. I pulled over into a restaurant parking lot wondering why he pulled me over.
Soon I had my answer.
It turns out that the main bulb in the right taillight had burned out. I asked him if the center light was working. He said it was. He took my license and insurance and I dug through the pocket on the driver's side door for a spare bulb.
While I changed the bulb he printed out a warning and went on about his way.
I did appreciate him telling me my taillight was out - since equipment violations are an oft-used excuse to stop suspected drunk drivers. However, I was also a bit irritated since there was no equipment violation in my case. In Texas you are required to have two working taillights. Since all cars come equipped with three (one on each side and one in the middle), one can be malfunctioning and you aren't breaking the law. In other words, he had no legitimate reason to pull me over.
As I drove away my mind kept wandering back to the recent US Supreme Court case in which the Supremes upended precedent and decided that a traffic stop based on the officer's mistake of law is valid. In Heine v. North Carolina, No. 13-604 (2014), Mr. Heien was driving down the street when a law enforcement officer, Sgt. Matt Darisse of the Surrey County Sheriff's Office, stopped his car because he had a broken brake light. Of course Mr. Heien gave his consent when Sgt. Darisse asked to search the car.
Sgt. Darisse thought that Mr. Heien (who was laying down in the backseat) and Maynor Vasquez (the driver) were acting a bit suspicious so he asked to search the car after handing Mr. Vasquez a warning for the brake light. Well you don't have to be a genius to know what happened next. The search turned up a bag of cocaine. Both men were arrested.
At trial, Mr. Heien argued that the drugs should be suppressed because there was no legal basis for the traffic stop. It is (or, at least, was) well-established that a stop based on an officer's mistake of law was not reasonable, and was, therefore, illegal. Surprisingly enough the trial court didn't see it that way because, by golly, there was cocaine in the car and we must keep that shit off the streets.
On appeal the conviction was reversed because it wasn't illegal to drive a car in North Carolina with only one functioning brake light. The State Supreme Court then reversed the appellate court on the grounds that even though Sgt. Darisse was ignorant of the law, the stop was reasonable.
In an 8-1 decision, based more on looking at the outcome rather than on the process, the US Supreme Court held that a stop (or detention) based on an officer's mistake of law was, nonetheless, reasonable. So, even though we've been told for years that ignorance of the law is no defense against a criminal charge, it is, apparently, an excuse to detain someone illegally.
This decision has turned the Fourth Amendment on its side and is yet another example of how our rights are slowly being taken away from us without anyone noticing. We are the frog in the pot of water that doesn't even realize the temperature is being turned up until it's too late.