Supreme Court: Cops don’t have to know the law

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion that basically confirms police officers do not have to know the law. Yes, you read that right.

In HEIEN v. NORTH CAROLINA, the driver was pulled over in North Carolina for having a busted tail light. The officer “mistakenly” believed that the law requires two working brake lights. However, in North Carolina, the law does NOT require a driver to have two working brake lights. After the officer pulled the vehicle over (even though there was NO traffic infraction to give the officer the authority to stop the car), he noticed that the driver and passenger seemed “very stiff and nervous” (as if that were bizarre behavior for a person who is being stopped by the police for no reason?). The officer then asked the driver and passenger (Heien) for permission to search the vehicle, which ultimately revealed a sandwich bag filled with cocaine.

The US Supreme Court ruled that because the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable, there was “reasonable suspicion” justifying the stop under the Fourth Amendment.

In justifying the decision, Chief Justice Roberts cited what he claims to be “precedent” finding that a reasonable mistake of fact, such as an officer who stops a motorist for driving in a high-occupancy lane only to discover two children sleeping in the back seat, can justify a search or seizure and not violate the Fourth Amendment. Roberts then goes on to conclude that a “mistake of law” is as justifiable as a “mistake of fact,” and that there was essentially no violation of anyone’s rights in either scenario.

How can that be? And what is next? It seems that this decision is setting terrible precedent that will allow officers to do whatever they want and claim later that they “didn’t know they couldn’t do that.” Arrest first, ask questions later? Forget about the far-reaching effects; let’s talk about the immediate issue: if a traffic cop’s daily job function is to stop drivers for traffic offenses (such as speeding, broken tail lights, running stop signs, etc.), shouldn’t the traffic cop be required to actually know the laws entailed? Or are we now just handing out patrol cars and badges to everyone and waiting to see what happens?

A local law student, Ana Roditi, hit the nail on the head when interviewed about the case when she stated “It’s crazy to think that ignorance of the law is no excuse, unless you’re a cop – then it’s a reasonable excuse!”

Defendants cannot claim ignorance of the law as a defense to a criminal charge. But apparently, police officers can use it as an excuse to arrest anyone they feel like.

It’s an unfortunate day for civilian rights – instead of holding law enforcement to a higher standard of actually knowing the laws they are trying to enforce, the Supreme Court is now putting the burden on civilians.

The full opinion can be found here.

Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Family law.

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Invoking Rights During Questioning

An interesting case from the 1st DCA was published this week and it provides a good discussion relative to my recent blog “Miranda Warnings – Infographic,” 

In the case of State of Florida v. Parker, the 1st DCA revisited the important issue of constitutional rights during an interrogation of a suspect. In that case, the suspect was being questioned by police in connection with a burglary with battery charge (in addition to other charges). Burglary-battery, or “burg-batt,” is a first degree felony in the State of Florida, punishable by up to life in prison, and found under Florida Statute 810.02.

During the questioning, the following questions and answers (at issue) allegedly took place:

Suspect: “Can you just tell me if I need to get a lawyer or something?”

Officer: “Listen, that’s your right. But what I’m interested in is the truth.”

At this point, the suspect allegedly made incriminating statements. 

 

Suspect “Is there a lawyer in the building?”

Officer: “No, you would have to call one.”

The suspect was ultimately placed under arrest. During his case, the suspect (now defendant) filed a motion to suppress his incriminating statements, arguing that the police officer had violated his constitutional rights by not giving him a straightforward answer. The law regarding this issue requires police officers to stop the interview when a suspect asks a question concerning his or her rights, and make a good-faith effort to give a simple and straightforward answer. Once the officer answers the question, appropriately, the officer can continue the interview unless the suspect invokes his her her rights (such as his or her right to remain silent and right to counsel). However, Florida courts have held that when an officer gives an evasive answer, skips the question, or talks over the suspect, the officer has violated Florida’s Constitution and the US Constitution, and any incriminating statements obtained as a result of the constitutional violations may be suppressed as coerced.

 

In this case, the Court found that the officer had in fact made a good-faith effort to appropriately answer the suspects questions regarding his rights. As a result, the incriminating statements the suspect made about himself were admissible in trial.

Interestingly, the Court also mentioned in its ruling that the suspect’s question about “whether there was a lawyer in the building” was not an unequivocal invocation of his right to an attorney. That is an example of why it is extremely important for anyone being questioned by police to know his or her rights so that he or she can properly invoke them if he/she chooses to do so. Many people do not know their rights or the steps they have to take to invoke them. An unclear question regarding a suspect’s rights will not be sufficient to invoke them. A person who wants to stop the interrogation to speak with a lawyer has to clearly make the request. Anyone who has questions regarding their rights during a police interrogation should contact a criminal defense attorney.

 

Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Marital Law.

 

Miranda Warnings – Infographic

We see police officers give Miranda Warnings to people they are arresting on television all the time, but what are they really?

Miranda Rights were developed after the landmark Supreme Court Case of Miranda v. Arizona in 1966. In that case, the defendant, Miranda, was arrested for kidnapping and rape. After being interrogated for two hours by police officers without being advised of his rights, Miranda signed a confession. Miranda’s lawyer argued that the confession was not voluntary as a result, and should have been excluded as evidence from the trial. The US Supreme Court ultimately agreed, and found that the defendant’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer had been violated. Interestingly, Miranda was later retried and convicted.

In its ruling, the US Supreme Court stated that prior to interrogation, a person who is in custody must be clearly informed that he/she has (1) the right to remain silent, (2) that anything he/she says can and will be used against him/her in a court of law, (3) that he/she has the right to consult with an attorney prior to and during any questioning, and (4) that if he/she cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for him/her at no cost. 

Subsequent to the Miranda decision, it became necessary for police officers to “Mirandize,” or read a person’s Miranda Rights to them, prior to an interrogation. Although we commonly see police officers reading Miranda Rights on tv, it is not always necessary for them to do so. There are only certain, limited scenarios in which an officer has to warn a person of his/her rights, specifically: when that person is in custody and being interrogated. Many people believe that their criminal charges can be “thrown out” because an officer didn’t read Miranda. However, if a person voluntarily answered questions during a consensual encounter with police officers (for example, an officer walked up to the person on the street and asked them what they were doing), those answers can be used against them later. A person who is arrested, handcuffed and taken to jail does not have to have their rights read to them unless the officer begins asking that person questions. If the arrested person starts talking on his/her own in the back of the police car, without being asked questions, all of those statements can be used against the arrestee. Further, suspects who are informed they are free to leave and not under arrest do not have to be Mirandized, and any confession that person gives can usually be used in court. Finally, even if a person has been read Miranda Rights, that person can still waive those rights and have any subsequent confession used against them.

A person who IS placed under arrest and interrogated without being read Miranda Rights may be able to have his/her statements suppressed (or thrown out). However, that does not mean the case has to be or will be dismissed. Anyone who has questions regarding their particular case, or Miranda rights in general, should contact a criminal defense attorney.

The infographic below provides a colorful layout of Miranda Rights as they are typically read.

Miranda Warnings

 

Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Marital Law.

DUI Property Damage – Exculpatory Evidence

An interesting DUI with Property Damage case from Broward was decided recently by the 4th District Court of Appeal. There, the Court had to decide the issue of what remedy, if any, is available to a DUI defendant where the police fail to preserve video evidence of a DUI investigation.

In that case, the Defendant was arrested for Driving Under the Influence with Injury and Property Damage. During the DUI investigation, the sheriff’s office had a DUI Task Force deputy conduct roadside sobriety exercises (such as the Walk and Turn exercise, the Finger to Nose exercise, and One Leg Stand exercise). The deputy was recording the exercises on his in-car camera. However, after a few moments, the camera’s view of the defendant performing the exercises was obstructed by condensation that had built up on the windshield as a result of the air conditioning being on in the police car. The deputy testified that he knew the fogging could happen (and routinely happens when it is hot and muggy outside), but he failed to check the camera to make sure it properly recording. Therefore, the remainder of the exercises was not able to be seen on the video. The defendant filed a motion to dismiss or to exclude the evidence, arguing that the sheriff’s office essentially destroyed exculpatory evidence (or, evidence that would have been helpful to the defendant).

The Trial Court dismissed the charges, finding that the sheriff’s office failed to follow their standard operating procedures by failing to properly maintain the video camera and ensuring that the proper recording occurred. The State appealed the case. 

The appellate court reversed the dismissal, finding that there were other less severe sanctions that the trial court should have entered to rectify the prejudice caused to the defense by the lost recording. For example, the court could have simply excluded any evidence pertaining to the roadside exercises and an instruction to the jury that they may infer that the lost evidence is exculpatory.

In DUI cases, there are possible defenses. In the case above, the defendant argued that the improperly recorded video would have showed him doing well on the exercises, thereby helping his defense. However, because the recording was damaged, the jury would never get to see the evidence that the defendant believed would help him. In that case, if the court excludes the evidence of the roadside tasks, such as all of the video and the officer’s testimony about how the defendant performed, the State Attorney will likely have a much more difficult time proving to the jury that the defendant was driving under the influence.

Driving Under the Influence in the State of Florida can have serious consequences, including jail time, probation, driver’s license suspension. Anyone arrested for a DUI should contact a Criminal Defense Attorney to explore their defense options.

 

 

Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Marital Law.

Cell Phone Searches

The Florida 3rd District Court of Appeal in Miami recently ruled that warrantless searches of cell phones are illegal, even when they are incident to a lawful arrest.

Generally, when a person is lawfully placed under arrest, police are legally allowed to search the person without a warrant in order to locate and remove any weapons and to seize any evidence on the person’s body or within their immediate control to prevent concealment or destruction of the evidence. This is commonly referred to as a “search incident to arrest.”

In the case of Saint-Hilaire v. State of Florida,  the defendant was stopped by a police officer for a routine traffic infraction. During their interaction, the officer noticed that the defendant’s wallet contained multiple nearly identical debit cards. The defendant allegedly consented to a search of his wallet. The officer discovered that the coding on one of the cards did not match the name on the front, and then placed the defendant under arrest. At that point, the officer patted down the defendant, found his cell phone, and searched it. The search of the cell phone allegedly revealed a list of multiple names and security numbers. The defendant was ultimately charged with several counts of possession of personal identification information with intent to defraud. Possession of personal identification with intent to defraud (found in Florida Statute 817.568) is a third degree felony in the State of Florida, punishable by up to five (5) years in Florida State Prison for each count, in addition to fines.

The defendant filed a Motion to Suppress, arguing that the evidence found on his cell phone should be thrown out because it was obtained as a result of an unlawful, warrantless search by the police officer. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, and he appealed the case.

The appellate court agreed with the defendant and found that the trial court should have thrown out the evidence. The appellate court stated that the search of a cell phone goes beyond the bounds of a legal search incident to a lawful arrest when there is no evidence that the officer had a reasonable belief that the cell phone contained evidence of a crime. The officer was legally allowed to seize (or take) the phone, but he was not allowed to search it.  If the officer wanted to search the phone, the lawful method should have been for him to obtain a warrant.

It is important to note that the State Attorney’s office in that case could still go forward with charges by using the evidence from the defendant’s wallet. If the defendant consented to the search of his wallet, any evidence found in his wallet was lawfully obtained.

Consenting to a search is never a good idea. The only reason police officers ask to search someone is because they want to obtain more evidence against that person to place them under arrest. If the police had enough evidence to arrest the person, they would arrest them. Unfortunately, many people do not know their rights. When stopped by police officers, many people feel intimidated and simply agree to whatever the officer asks, hoping that doing so will make the encounter easier. However, agreeing to searches and answering questions only makes the encounter easier for the police – it gives them more evidence to arrest without even having to apply for a warrant.

Anyone who has questions about their rights regarding searches, consent, and police investigations in Palm Beach County should contact a Florida Criminal Defense Lawyer.

 

Casey Reiter is an associate attorney at Stuart R. Manoff & Associates, P.A. in West Palm Beach, Florida, practicing in the areas of Criminal Defense and Marital Law.