In our last post, we began writing about the legality of police searches and seizures, particularly in cases where officers make a mistake of fact or law. As we noted, it is well-established that reasonable mistakes of fact do not vitiate an officerâs reasonable suspicion, but it was only recently that the Supreme Court applied the same principle to mistakes of law.
The key to the court’s decision is that the mistake of law must be reasonable. An officer who made little effort to understand the law he or she was attempting to enforce, or who made a mistake that would be obvious to a reasonably informed officer, would not therefore be able to have his or her reasonable suspicion upheld in court. Still, as some commentators have pointed out, it isn’t clear exactly how the new standard will be applied going forward, particularly in cases where there may be divergent interpretations on the law in question.
More importantly for our readers, though, is the question of what the significance would be, from a criminal defendant’s point of view, when an officer can be found to have made an unreasonable mistake of law.
In the case on which the decision was based, a man had been pulled over by an officer because of the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law regarding brake light requirements. During the course of the stop, the officer discovered drugs in the vehicle, which led to charges of drug trafficking. In his case, there was an attempt to have that evidence suppressed at trial because of the officer’s mistake.
In our next post, we’ll turn the discussion to the issue of suppression of evidence and how criminal defendants are able to benefit from this legal strategy.