Our readers are, or at least should be, aware that officers don’t have free reign to investigate criminal activity. In fact, officers must always have some legally justifiable basis to stop and question a suspect, to stop a vehicle, to conduct a search, or to make an arrest. One common standard to which officers are held is that of probable cause, which is the reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. Officers must have probable cause in order to make an arrest or to obtain a warrant.
Another standard is reasonable suspicion, which is less than that of probable cause, and indicates something like an informed belief supported by specific facts. Police must have at least a reasonable suspicion to detain and question an individual, or to stop a vehicle. Officers are not infallible, of course, and do make mistakes, both with regard to the facts and the law.
Established case law holds that an officer’s reasonable mistake of fact does not destroy probable cause or reasonable suspicion. And now, after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last month, it is clear that an officer’s reasonable mistake as to the relevant law does not destroy probable cause or reasonable suspicion either.
The decision stems from a North Carolina case in which an officer stopped a vehicle on the mistaken belief that the motorist had violated a traffic regulation. To be clear, the mistake was not one of fact, but of the law itself. During the stop, though, it was discovered that the motorist had illegal drugs in his vehicle, and he was later charged. The motorist subsequently sought to have that evidence excluded from trial, claiming that the officer didn’t have reasonable suspicion to make the stop in the first place.
One of the unfortunate realities of criminal law is that we are not allowed to have mistaken beliefs as to the law, but officers are. An individual who violates a law because of a mistaken belief may still be prosecuted. This is why it is so important to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney in building a solid defense case, to ensure that one’s rights are protected and that the power balance is evened out a bit in the criminal process.