Massive protests have recently spread throughout the nation, expressing outrage at police brutality and the murders of unarmed suspects Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
In the wake of these protests, on December 15, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court increased police power and granted officers more discretion when making an arrest. The case involved a traffic stop conducted by North Carolina officer Matt Darisse. After noticing that a right brake light of a car owned by Nicholas Heien, and driven by Mayor Havier Vasquez, the officer decided to pull the vehicle over. However, having a non-working right brake light is not in violation of the North Carolina traffic code. After pulling over the vehicle, Darisse issued a warning for the light but, somehow, convinced Heien to authorize a voluntary search of his car. Officer Darisse later admitted that he pulled over the vehicle, not because of the brake light, but because he thought Vasquez appeared “stiff and nervous,” insofar as he was “gripping the steering wheel at a 10 and 2 [o’clock] position, looking straight ahead.” The driver, Vasquez, is Latino.
After conducting the search, the officer recovered a bag of cocaine. Both Heien and Vasquez were charged with drug trafficking. The legal question presented to the Supreme Court was whether the officer’s mistaken belief about the law constituted a valid stop. If the Court had decided in the negative, the stop violated the defendant’s 4th amendment rights against search and seizure.
Normally, mistake of law is never a defense for those charged with a crime. The question stands, should the officer’s ignorance of the law remain a justification to legally search a suspect’s car, if they have reasonable suspicion? The Supreme Court decided, yes, the officer can mistakenly believe there is a violation of the law. Therefore, even though the defense of “mistake of law” is unavailable to a defendant charged with a crime, it is readily available to an officer who makes an arrest based on their ignorance of the law. There are many concerns with the ruling including an officer’s potentially lying that they made a mistake, when they really knew the offense was not a violation of any law.
The Supreme Court ruling appears to be directly in violation of the “fruit of the poisonous tree” exception, applied to criminal arrests. This doctrine makes an arrest invalid if it is the direct result of an illegal search. The law states that is that if the source (the “tree”) of the evidence is tainted, then anything gained (the “fruit”) from it is also tainted. The arrest will likely not stand up in court.
It has long been established that, in this type of situation, a suspect’s 4th amendment rights are violated. For example, if a police officer searches a home without a warrant and takes some property as evidence, it is an illegal search. That evidence will be thrown out of court, unless the officer can demonstrate that this evidence could have been obtained by other means.
Furthermore, there are many concerns of the law allowing the police to use stereotyping and racial bias in a search. One of the amicus curiae briefs, filed by the Rutherford Institute, in the Heien case addressed race and ethnicity and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protections afforded to criminal defendants. The brief argued that this ruling will allow the police too much discretion in their interpretations of the law, which will inevitably lead to negative impacts on minorities.
Studies have long shown that African Americans and Hispanics are much more likely than whites to be searched, despite constituting a much lower percentage of the population. Studies have also shown that here is an innate psychological bias against minorities within many police departments, based on high crime in low income neighborhoods. In fact, in New York City a number of officers, who fall into a minority classification, recently expressed that they fear white police officers when undercover.
History shows that dictatorships have allowed the police to misuse their power and even carry out criminal acts, with no consequences. The institutionalized racism and classism was all too apparent in countries run by dictators. However, the United States is a democracy. Nonethless, confrontations between the police and those of lower income brackets, are often the stage for violence that ensues between the two.
The police, who are obviously in a position of power, often overreact when making an arrest, soliciting a voluntary search or extracting a confession of a person that they perceive as guilty. In no way am I suggesting that the police force of any city is, as a whole, racist and classist. However, it is inevitable that racism occurs when profiling suspects and these occurrences have resulted in unjustified arrests. Recently, potentially unnecessary arrests have actually resulted in the death of an unarmed suspect who was not physically resisting, for something as minor as selling single cigarettes on a street corner.
The type of unfettered police discretion, granted by the Court in the Heien ruling, has proven to have devastating consequences on both minorities and even the police. After the death of Garner, caused by a chokehold banned by the NYPD, a man murdered two police officers on the streets of New York. He apparently had expressed his anger on social media about the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Much of the mainstream media, as well as the NYPD union spokesman, linked the murders to the protests of police brutality throughout the City. However, they minimize the fact that the suspect had a history of mental illness.
The majority of people in opposition to police brutality do not advocate for the murder of police officers. To the contrary, many of the social media posts from the left state that “all lives matter” and condemn the murders. We must not confuse the two situations. Murder, of any person, is wrong. In fact, the daughter of Eric Garner attended the memorial of the murdered officers to show her support to their families. However, the relationship between the police and the community must change. A mutual respect must be established and racial profiling needs to be replaced by the motto of “protect and serve”, as opposed to unfettered police discretion, based on racial profiling. However, the Heien decision will allow these potentially illegal searches and arrests to stand up in court and give the police too much discretion in the handling of suspects.