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Double Standard: Mistake of Law


We have all heard from countless lawyers that ignorance of the law is not only a very bad defense, but is not a defense at all. As we all know, telling the police you "didn't know it was illegal to have your ounce of cocaine in your car" won't work too well for you in the legal system. In short, we are assumed to know our own laws.

So we know that citizens cannot use our ignorance of the law as a defense to a crime, but what about those people on the opposite end of the spectrum—say the police? Take a look at this.

You (after being pulled over):

"Officer, I didn't know it was illegal to pass someone in a double-line zone."

Result: traffic ticket

Officer (after pulling you over):

"Sir/Ma'am, I pulled you over because I did not like your bumper sticker."

Result: nothing

This begs the question, why can the officer make a mistake of law (not knowing he or she cannot pull you over without reasonable suspicion or probable cause), however you cannot make a mistake of law (not knowing that it was illegal to pass on a double-line zone)? While you are given a traffic ticket for your ignorance of the law, the officer is given the benefit of the doubt when he or she skimps on the legal knowledge. Where on earth does this double standard come from and is it legal?

Heien v. North Carolina

Turns out, this very legal tidbit comes most recently from the Heien case. Heien tells us that as long as the police officer makes a "reasonable" mistake of the law, the stop or seizure cannot be shot down on these grounds alone. Put simply, the police officer can make a mistake and pull you over—clearly violating your Fourth Amendment rights—however, because the officer made a reasonable mistake as to the law, and according to the United States Supreme Court, it's alright and there is not enough harm to warrant exclusion. WRONG. There is a lot of harm—your right to be free from unwarranted searches and seizures. Why does the Supreme Court give preference to the subjective mental state of law enforcement, yet doesn't think twice to give it to ordinary citizens. I don't know about you, but the last time I checked, the U.S. Constitution was made to protect the citizens from the State (law enforcement), not the other way around.

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