SCOTUS to hear cases on right to search cars: Impact on criminal charges

Although most police officers serve in an effort to keep their communities safe, some abuse the powers that come with their position. In fact, the issue of police abusing these powers has become so prevalent that even Forbes recently addressed it in an article. The piece focused on the potential impact of two cases before SCOTUS, or the Supreme Court of the United States, and the likelihood that holdings could result in an attempt to "rein in" any potential abuse of power when officers make a traffic stop.

Case #1: Heien v. North Carolina

The first case, Heien v. North Carolina, addresses whether a police officer's mistaken interpretation of the law can justify a traffic stop. The case involves a vehicle that was stopped for an improperly functioning brake light. Essentially, the vehicle had one brake light that worked and one that did not. The officer believed the law required both brake lights to be fully functional, but it did not. As a result, the officer pulled the car over based on a misinterpretation of the law.

During the stop, consent was given to search the vehicle and illegal drugs were found. This led to criminal charges. The driver argued that since there was no legal reason for the stop the search was illegal and all evidence leading to the charges should be thrown out. The North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed and held that the stop was reasonable when the "totality of the circumstances" were taken into consideration. The case was argued before the Supreme Court on October 6, 2014.

The second case, Rodriguez v. United States, addresses whether or not an officer can extend a traffic stop once it is completed in order to wait for a drug dog to arrive to conduct a sniff test when there is not consent or additional justification for the test. The driver argues that this intrusion is a violation of basic Fourth Amendment rights against the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, but lower courts held that the intrusion was minimal and thus allowable. This case has not yet been argued before SCOTUS.

Impact of these cases

Both cases address Fourth Amendment rights and vehicle searches. Legal experts predict SCOTUS will rule in favor of the state in Heien v. North Carolina, allowing for searches when officers conduct a stop based on a misinterpretation of the law. However, the decision will likely include language aimed at protecting the rights of drivers and keeping officers from abusing this power.

Experts with Forbes note the fact that SCOTUS has agreed to hear Rodriguez provides support that at least a few justices are uncomfortable with allowing officers to prolong a traffic stop for a search when there is no justification. If nothing else, this could lead to a situation similar to Heien, providing these justices an opportunity to include language limiting the situations when an extension of the stop is allowed.

Regardless of how these cases are decided, the discussion brings attention to the fact that even a simple traffic stop can lead to complex criminal charges. If you are charged with a crime, defenses are available that can lead to a reduction or even, in some cases, a dismissal of charges. Contact an experienced criminal defense lawyer to discuss your situation and help to better ensure your legal rights are protected.