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The Supreme Court just made it easier for police to search your car

  1. The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police officers can sometimes conduct a search and seizure of a car even if that search is the result of an unlawful stop.
  2. The 8-1 decision resolved a North Carolina case in which a police officer pulled over Nicholas Heien's car because his right brake light was out, even though state law requires only one functioning brake light.
  3. The police officer subsequently searched, with consent from Heien, the car and found cocaine in the trunk, leading to a drug trafficking conviction.
  4. A North Carolina appeals court said the stop wasn't allowed under state law. But the state's highest court and Supreme Court disagreed, saying a reasonable misunderstanding of the law can satisfy constitutional requirements for searches and seizures.

The decision gives cops more latitude in specific cases

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. Getty Images

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the majority opinion. (Paul Richards / AFP via Getty Images)

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, justifies some searches and seizures even if they're the result of an unlawful stop, as long as culpable officer is making a reasonable mistake. But the opinion was fairly narrow, focusing on the specifics of the North Carolina case.

Roberts noted that North Carolina's traffic-break law is written in a confusing way, making it reasonable that the police officer wasn't sure of how to interpret the statute. "I suspect most of you here were surprised to learn that only one brake light is required in North Carolina, even if you are from North Carolina," Roberts said as he read his opinion on Monday, according to the Associated Press.

Roberts also cautioned Heien wasn't being punished under the confusing brake-light law. "Heien is not appealing a brake-light ticket," he said. "He is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law."

The focus on the specifics of the North Carolina case led some legal experts to question how far the ruling will go as a legal precedent.

The decision gives police "somewhat more power," John Barrett, of St. John's School of Law in New York City, told NPR, "but it's hard to imagine that it's a lot."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenter in the case, said an officer's mistake of law "no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment." Sotomayor suggested that allowing such mistakes further worsens distrust between the police and communities. It could also, she wrote, lead to more confusion about what's actually legal and not since courts and police may have less incentive to clarify the true meaning of the law.

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