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Ignorance of the law is no excuse…unless you’re a cop?
There is a long held doctrine that ignorance of the law will not excuse a criminal defendant for violating said law. For instance, if you were traveling down a street at 40 mph and the speed limit was 30 mph, you cannot escape liability for speeding by telling the officer that you didn’t know that you were speeding.
However, it now appears that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) will not apply that same standard to police officers. In Heien v. North Carolina, the defendant was stopped for a broken brake light. When challenging the basis for the initial traffic stop, Heien’s defense attorney argued, correctly, that the relevant North Carolina law only required that a single light be in working order. However, there was other statutory language that confused the officer. So even though the motorist was breaking no traffic laws, the officer’s mistaken belief that he was breaking the law satisfied the Court.
In most cases, if an officer makes an unwarranted traffic stop and then discovers evidence of a crime, that evidence will be suppressed as “fruit of the poisonous tree.” In other words, if the police violate your right to be free from an unreasonable search and seizure, they don’t get to benefit from said violation. In Heien, the court essentially threw out this idea because they believed that the officer’s ignorance of the law was reasonable and the motion to suppress evidence was effectively denied.
As a Denver DUI and criminal defense attorney, I will continue to challenge the constitutionality of each and every contact between my clients and law enforcement. The Heien case deals with a specific fact pattern of confusing statutes. It does NOT excuse all police ignorance of the law.