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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Florida Supreme Court Reverses Drug Conviction

On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court held that the trial court should have suppressed evidence obtained by Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) when officers went beyond the scope of a search warrant by tracking the real-time movements of a defendant’s cell phone.

BSO had obtained a search warrant for the cellphone of Sean Alvin Tracey. The warrant permitted BSO to obtain phone numbers sent or received by Tracey’s phone. However, the warrant did not permit BSO to track the phone’s location. BSO’s tracking of the real-time movements of Tracey’s phone, based on pings from cell towers, led to polcie surveillance of Tracey, and the ultimate confiscation of a kilo of cocaine and $23,000 in cash.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the evidence obtained from the cell tower tracking of Tracey’s phone should have been suppressed. The case was remanded to the trial court, which means that the prosecution will either have to go forward without the evidence, or dismiss the case.

The Supreme Court’s decision, authored by Chief Justice Labarga, states:

“We conclude that Tracey had a subjective expectation of privacy in the location signals transmitted solely to enable the private and personal use of his cell hone, even on public roads, and that he did not voluntarily convey that information to the service provider for any purpose other than to enable use of his cell phone for its intended purpose.”

Essentially, it was the Court’s decision that the scope of a warrant shouldn’t be expanded to include the location of a person just because that person turned on his or her cell phone:

“… Because cell phones are indispensable to so many people and are normally carried on one’s person, cell phone tracking can easily invade the right to privacy in one’s home or other private areas, a matter that the government cannot always anticipate and one which, when it occurs, is clearly a Fourth Amendment violation. The Supreme Court noted in Riley that “modern cell phones . . . are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of the human anatomy. A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones.” . . . This real risk of “inadvertent” violation of Fourth Amendment rights is not a risk worth imposing on the citizenry when it is not an insurmountable task for the government to obtain a warrant based on probable cause when such tracking is truly justified.”

The full decision can be found on the Florida Supreme Court’s website here: Tracey v. State

What Happens After A Person Is Arrested in Florida?

This educational guide provides a general summary of the basic legal process in a Florida criminal matter, and follows closely along with the infographic below.

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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.

Ending the War on Drugs

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group and member of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, published an interesting article on ending the War on Drugs this week which included a discussion of sentencing guidelines.

According to the article, the United States currently keeps more people in prison than any other country in the world:

“More than 2.4 million people languish in federal, state and county prisons, many of them non-violent drug users serving life sentences triggered by misguided three-strike laws that don’t distinguish between petty theft and armed robbery. Prisons everywhere are overcrowded, while law enforcement and judicial resources are wasted. It’s a travesty that has created a vicious and inescapable cycle of incarceration, ruining the lives of thousands of non-violent offenders in the process.”

Branson references the “War on Drugs,” which was initiated by President Richard Nixon over 40 years ago, as a “spectacular failure,” citing to the more than $1 trillion spent battling the war and the tens of thousands of lives lost in law enforcement, while the demand for drugs remains as strong as ever.

Within the article, Branson compassionately argues that the solution is sentencing reform:

“Current drug laws need a whole range of fixes, but there is one issue where relatively simple changes in the law could literally mean the difference between a life behind bars and a fresh start for thousands, while saving millions in taxpayer funds: I’m talking about sentencing reform.”

The complete article can be found here: “Let’s Fix It: End the War on Drugs.”

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.

What to Expect During Jury Selection

Many people are curious as to what they should expect when participating in jury selection – either as a potential juror or as a party in a trial. The following is a brief explanation of the Jury Selection process in Palm Beach County, Florida:

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When jury selection begins, the presiding judge will typically begin with a lengthy explanation of the legal process. Then, the judge will usually have the jury pool (or, the potential jurors) read aloud and answer pre-printed questionnaires created by the judge. These questionnaires have generic questions, such as marital status, employment, prior jury service, prior involvement in law suits, and other similar types of questions to allow the State and Defense to learn the background of the jurors. Once the jury has finished answering these questions, then the State and Defense will begin asking their own questions, with the State presenting first.

As a criminal defense attorney, the way I choose which questions I am going to ask a jury really depends on the facts of the case and the charge my client is facing. My jury questioning (or “voir dire”) usually begins with an “ice breaker” and an introduction of the jury to the criminal process in general, which will vary depending upon the thoroughness of the Judge’s and the State’s explanations. I want to make sure the jury understands its job, and I want to make sure they understand I am looking for jurors who will be fair. I have a few standard questions that I like to ask, such as “what are your thoughts about police officers” or “have you ever been a victim of a crime” to get an idea of how these jurors view the criminal justice system. I want to know if there are jurors who love police officers and will believe them no matter what the facts are, just as the State wants to know if there are jurors who hate police officers. Then, I will ask specific questions based on what I think are the important issues in the particular case that is there for trial. For example, if my case involves a witness who has been convicted of a crime before, I want to find out if there are jurors who are going to discredit his testimony based solely on that fact. Or, if I have a case that involves a scientific process, such as a breath testing machine in a DUI case, I want to ask questions about who will blindly trust the science, and who will question it and make his or her own determination based upon the evidence presented.

Jury selection is sometimes jokingly referred to as “jury deselection,” because the goal truly is, not to eliminate jurors, but to eliminate bias against issues in your particular case. If there are jurors that have given answers that appear biased one way or another, criminal law attorneys will follow up with those jurors specifically to ferret out the impartiality. If a juror is wavering on an important issue, criminal law attorneys will ask follow up questions to determine that particular juror’s true feelings, and ultimately determine whether that person can be fair and impartial at the end of the day, or if that person should be dismissed from the jury. Judges often inform jurors that there is “no wrong answer,” and that is entirely correct – everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs, and are encouraged to express them during jury selection. Not being selected as a juror is not an insult; it simply means that the particular potential juror did not fit the issues on the case. Everyone involved in a trial, State and Defense alike, is entitled to a fair trial with impartial jurors who will be able to follow the law.

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.