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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Appeals Court Creates New Crime to Affirm Conviction

This case, State v Helen, arose out of North Carolina.  The facts, on the surface, were about as favorable as it gets for the prosecutor.

The accused had a tail light out.  [If I had a dime for every defendant I represented who was pulled over for a tail light...]  The officer stopped the motorist; the stop led to a search of his vehicle and, eventually, a drug conviction.

Here is the problem that arose on appeal: in North Carolina, there is a little known wrinkle in their motor vehicle code which provides that, so long as a motorist's other tail light is functioning, having one light out is not a violation.

This case went all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court.  Now, if I was sitting on that High Court, my vote would be to reverse the conviction.  If the officer lacked probable cause to conduct a traffic stop, then basic Fourth Amendment constitutional law provides that the evidence seized in an illegal stop and search is excluded as the proverbial "fruit of the poisonous tree".

A constitutional "no-brainer", right?  Guess again.  The divided High Court essentially created a new traffic law by holding that, so long as the officer held a reasonable belief that a law had been broken, the search was legal.

But citizens, take note that this "reasonably-held-belief" standard does not work both ways.  If you, the motorist, reasonably believe that you are obeying the traffic laws, [say you are texting in a municipality where you believe no distraction ordinance has been adopted], but in fact, you are violating a provision of the traffic code, then your ignorance of this law is no defense and you can get a ticket.

The "take away" from this case from North Carolina is that ignorance of the law is ok if you are a peace officer, but not if you are an ordinary citizen.

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