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Good Faith and the Exclusionary Rule

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This morning the United States Supreme Court agreed to review a case in which police officers made a traffic stop for what they believed in good faith was a violation.  The case is Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604.  SCOTUSblog's case page has links to the cert-stage pleadings and the state supreme court opinion.

Can the police stop a car if one of its brake lights is out?  I always thought so.  I would consider it a favor to be told that and let off with a warning, if I were unaware of the failure.  In this case, the officer was suspicious of the vehicle for other reasons and looking for a reason to stop the car and request consent to search.  The Supreme Court held some years back that it will not look beyond the objective legality of the stop to ulterior motives.

Turns out that in North Carolina no published decision had ever held whether a car must have all brake lights working or just one, and the intermediate appellate court held in this case that one will do.  This is a clear case of a police officer obeying the law as he understands it at the time of the search, but the defendant seeks suppression based on a new interpretation of the law ex post facto.

Is this a proper case for application of the drastic remedy of exclusion of valid, probative evidence?  Not in my book.  The question the trial court needed to decide in this case was whether Heien was trafficking cocaine.  The evidence proves he was, beyond a reasonable doubt, and that evidence is not challenged on any ground relating to its reliability.  That should be the end of the criminal case.

The Fourth Amendment exclusionary rule should be abolished altogether.  The Fourth Amendment should be enforced in civil cases where its purported violation is the central issue.  Until that day comes, the exclusionary rule should be limited to bad-faith violations.

The high court also took up Johnson v. United States, No. 13-7120, asking whether a prior conviction of possession of a short-barreled shotgun is a "violent felony" for purposes of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

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I worked on a factually similar case in another state. A defendant was stopped for something that may or may not have violated local/state traffic laws. The court said suppression was not appropriate because the officer acted in good faith in thinking the defendant's act violated the traffic law. Since that resolved the case, the court didn't bother to decide what the traffic law actually meant. The defendant wasn't charged with violating the traffic law, so it didn't matter.

So a good faith mistake of law exception provides two undesirable incentives. First, cops have no reason to actually learn the law. If you know something is legal but stop someone for it anyway, the evidence will be suppressed. If you intentionally learn as little about the law as possible, you've got a good shot that the a court will find your ignorance reasonable.

Second, it provides an incentive for courts to leave laws ambiguous. Cops just need to find a vague local ordinance that hasn't been interpreted by a court, construe it as broadly as possible, and then use that as a pretext for a stop. Is the cop's construction of the statute correct? Doesn't matter unless the state is foolish enough to charge a violation of that statute. This eliminates any remedy for some Fourth Amendment violations, since suppression doesn't apply and 1983 won't help since officers can't violate clearly established law if the state courts never establish what the law means.

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