Supreme Court takes on traffic stops, police shooting

The U.S. Supreme Court is nearing the end of its term, with some major decisions yet to be issued. However, the Court has already issued three decisions related to police powers that could affect your rights if you ever have an encounter with a West Virginia police officer.

In the first case, the justices essentially ruled that ignorance of the law is an excuse -- for the police, that is. In the underlying case, a man was arrested for cocaine possession after an officer pulled him over for a broken brake light. Having one broken brake light is not against the law in the defendant’s state, so he argued that the officer did not have justification to stop his car.

The Court ruled in favor of the officer. They determined that an officer can be mistaken about the law and perform a valid search, as long as the officer’s error was “objectively reasonable.” Thus, the cocaine was admissible evidence in court.

In another case, the Court ruled 6-3 that police in San Francisco enjoyed qualified immunity stemming from their shooting of a mentally ill woman inside a group home. Many observers note that the Supreme Court tends to defer to the police, leading to a gradual expansion of law enforcement’s authority.

However, in one case the Court did rule in favor of the defendant. This case once again involved a traffic stop. The officer stopped a driver for veering onto the shoulder of the highway and issued him a ticket. When he asked the driver for permission to have a police dog search his car, the driver refused, as is his right, but the officer ignored the refusal and did the dog sniff test anyway, discovering methamphetamine in the process.

In that case, the majority focused on the Justice Department’s contention that police can extend routine traffic stops to include dog searches. The Court ruled that a traffic stop can last only as long as it takes to take the driver’s information and issue a ticket.

Source: MSNBC, “Supreme Court refines rules governing police conduct,” Ari Melber, June 17, 2015

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