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What happens when officers don'€™t understand the law?

The legality of police searches and seizures is an important issue in the area of criminal defense. As Baltimore residents know, one of the basic duties of police officers is to seek out criminal activity and hold offenders accountable. In going about their work, officers have a great deal of resources to draw upon as well as the authority to employ various tactics in tracking down criminals.

Law enforcement, though, is not a free-for-all and there are limits to what officers are able to do in the interest of public safety. Federal case law has identified some very important limitations upon searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment, and law enforcement officers need to be held accountable for abiding by these limitations. Such issues come up not infrequently in DWI and drug offense cases.

Under established case law, officers must have probable cause to make an arrest and to obtain a search warrant. In addition, officers must have reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop, which essentially means that an officer should be able to articulate specific facts which lead him or her to believe the motorist committed a crime.

Officers, of course, are not infallible, and can make mistakes regarding the facts of a case. Established law holds that probable cause and reasonable suspicion are not destroyed, though, because of a reasonable mistake of fact. The key issue is whether the mistake was reasonable. But what about mistakes of law? Are officers required to be completely accurate in their understanding of the law?

A case recently decided by the U.S. Supreme Court tackled the issue, and ultimately came down in favor of law enforcement. In our next post, we’ll look at the recent case.

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