When Is It Reasonable For The Government To Break The Law?

Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down a ruling on a search and seizure case which didn’t get a lot of attention in the media but should have.

Heien vs. North Carolina related to a traffic stop which led to a drug arrest. The stop was initiated when an officer noticed a broken brake light, and drugs were found during a subsequent search. But, it turns out, under North Carolina law a broken brake light is not a primary offense. Meaning it’s not something that can justify a traffic stop.

[mks_pullquote align=”right” width=”300″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#000000″ txt_color=”#ffffff”]”The law is supposed to be the law, and if the law is not reasonable then it should be changed through the legislative process. But the Supreme Court has now endorsed a standard whereby the government can break the law as long as it is ‘reasonable’ to do so.”[/mks_pullquote]

The defense argued that the subsequent search and seizure which discovered the drugs was unreasonable under the 4th amendment because the officer didn’t have sound legal justification for initiating the stop. A majority on the Supreme Court disagreed.

“Because the officer’s mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.” He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan.

The lone dissent came from Obama-appointee Sonya Sotomayor who doesn’t find the government breaking the law to be reasonable at all.

“One is left to wonder,” she wrote in dissent, “why an innocent citizen should be made to shoulder the burden of being seized whenever the law may be susceptible to an interpretative question.”

In Sotomayor’s view, “an officer’s mistake of law, no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.”

I agree, and I’m concerned that the majority opinion introduces a dangerous level of subjectivity to laws restraining the government.

The law is supposed to be the law, and if the law is not reasonable then it should be changed through the legislative process. But the Supreme Court has now endorsed a standard whereby the government can break the law as long as it is “reasonable” to do so.

But reasonable in whose eyes? Those of government officials like judges and prosecutors and police officers? Or the eyes of the public?

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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