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Scotus Opinion Further Erodes Whats Left of the Fourth Amendment

In Whren v. U.S., 517 US 806 (1996), the Supreme Court held that a police officer could stop a vehicle for any traffic infraction that officer observed, regardless of how insignificant that infraction was or the actual motivation for stopping the vehicle. A police officer who wanted to stop a vehicle to determine whether an occupant was under the influence, transporting narcotics, or engaged in any other criminal activity but did not have reasonable suspicion to justify a stop merely had to follow the vehicle until the officer observed an infraction at which time he could lawfully detain the vehicle for further investigation. In other words, as long as the officer has observed an actual infraction, a stop will be deemed lawful regardless of the officer’s true motivation for the stop. In fact, the officer can even admit that stopping the vehicle because of an infraction was completely pretextual and not the true motivation for the stop, and the stop will still be legally justified and not subject to suppression. That is a pretty low bar for an officer to overcome, and as such as long as an officer could articulate some traffic infraction as the basis for the stop, the stop will be upheld.

Unfortunately, as low as that bar is, the Supreme Court just lowered it even further. The bar has now been so low as to be almost nonexistent. In Heien v. North Carolina, the United States Supreme Court held that an officer does not even have to observe an actual infraction. The officer in that case observed what he incorrectly believed was an infraction, and for that reason effectuated a traffic stop. Heien moved to suppress the evidence found subsequent to the stop on the grounds that what the officer believed was an infraction, and was the basis for the stop, was not actually an infraction and as such the stop was unlawful. The Supreme Court ruled that the stop was in fact lawful notwithstanding that it was not based on an actual traffic infraction. The Court held that an officer merely has to have “an objectively reasonable belief” that what he observed was an infraction. In other words, an officer can now stop a vehicle for any reason and justify that stop on the grounds that the officer believed he observed an infraction, irrespective of whether it actually was or not.

As a result of this holding, the Supreme Court has essentially done away with any Fourth Amendment protections for Americans driving their cars. The erosion of our Constitutional rights continues apace. A link to the opinion is here:


Posted on: 2 Apr, 2016