Supreme Court Permits ‘Reasonable Mistakes’ in Police Searches

WASHINGTON (McClatchy Washington Bureau/TNS) -

The Supreme Court on Monday upheld a North Carolina car search, in an 8-1 decision that provides more wiggle room for law enforcement officers who make a “reasonable” mistake about the law.

With conservative and liberal justices all but united, the court ruled that the 2009 search was permissible even though the Surry County Sheriff’s Office sergeant who conducted it erred in thinking the car violated state law governing warning brake lights.

“To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the sole dissenter, arguing that the decision means “further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.”

The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has previously ruled that a search might be permissible if the officer makes a reasonable factual mistake. Roberts cited the example Monday of an officer stopping a motorist for traveling alone in an HOV lane, only to discover that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat.

The case decided Monday extended the same kind of reasoning to different kinds of mistakes, dealing with the law.

“Reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion,” Roberts wrote.

Underscoring the case’s broader significance, 19 states filed a brief siding with North Carolina.