On December 15, 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a police officer who stopped a driver for a broken taillight and upon searching the vehicle, discovered a bag of cocaine. A North Carolina police officer pulled over a man in 2009 after noticing his right brake light was out. The 1955 state law, however, only requires one brake light to be functioning on a car at any given time. After stopping the car, the officer asked permission to search the car and discovered a sandwich bag of cocaine on the passenger. The man later pled guilty and served two years in prison.
A state appeals court disagreed with the sentence since the law in North Carolina only requires that one light be working, thus making the officer's initial stop lack any probable cause. This was reversed, however, at the highest court in the state, insisting that though the officer was mistaken, his actions were reasonable. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, arguing the protections against illegal searches and seizures guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment do not require law enforcement to act perfectly, but reasonably.
Chief Justice John Roberts cited the obscure wording of the North Carolina law as a defense for the officer's actions in deciding to stop the car. The state of North Carolina and the Obama administration have stated that refusing to allow police stops based in error could cause police to act with too much uncertainty when they are often forced to make quick decisions.
The only dissenting vote came from Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who argued on the contrary that no officer's mistake can justify a violation of the Fourth Amendment. This ruling means consenting to a police search is often not in the individuals' favor. If you are stopped, you do not have to consent to a search unless the officer has probable cause.
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