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Police Can Make Reasonable Mistakes When Stopping You


Even if you’re not a constitutional law scholar, you probably know that the constitution affords all citizens a right to freedom from unreasonable search and seizure under the 4th amendment. Any evidence obtained in violation of the 4th amendment cannot be used against you at trial (this is sometimes called the “exclusionary rule”). But what if the police think they have grounds to search your property, but it later turns out they were wrong?

Reasonable Suspicion and Probable Cause

As a general rule, police need “reasonable suspicion” to detain you in a temporary manner—such as with a traffic stop—and they need “probable cause” to search your property. Probable cause can be used to obtain a search warrant from a court but even without a warrant, if there is probable cause, police can search you or your property at any time.

There are loads of cases defining what constitutes both reasonable suspicion and probable cause. But just a few years ago the United States Supreme Court had to determine a more unique question: What if the police think they have reasonable suspicion, but later it turns out that they were incorrect? Is the stop illegal—and thus, any evidence obtained during the stop, inadmissible in trial?

Man Stopped After Mistaken Legal Interpretation

The case involved a North Carolina man who was stopped by police for having one brake light that was not working. The officer believed—incorrectly—that this was against the law. After the vehicle was stopped, the men inside the car gave consent to the police to search the car, and the search yielded a bag of cocaine.

The men argued that because the officers were wrong about the illegality of driving without a brake light, that there could never have been valid “reasonable suspicion,” thus making the entire stop illegal.

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which determined that the fact that the officers were incorrect did not make the stop illegal. The Court held that all an officer needs is an “objective basis” to suspect that a law has been broken, and as long as an officer acts reasonably in believing that there has been a law broken, or a crime committed, or some other act that constitutes reasonable suspicion, that the stop is legal.

Mistakes in Fact and Law

There is a difference between a mistake in fact and a mistake in the law. Here, the officers made a mistake in the law—they believed the law to be different than it actually was. But the Supreme Court felt this didn’t matter. The Court said that officers have to make decisions on the spot, and cannot always be held to perfect interpretations of every law while working in the field.

Remember that every step of a police stop, from the initial stop, to questioning, to any search of a person or property, must comply with the 4th amendment. If you have been arrested, contact the Miami criminal attorneys at Velasquez & Associates P.A. today.




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