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Colorado drivers and the Supreme Court ruling on traffic stop searches

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that evidence collected during a traffic stop is admissible in court, even if the stop was conducted under mistaken circumstances.

In December 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark ruling regarding traffic stop seizures applicable in Colorado and across the country. As the court opinion notes, a North Carolina man had been pulled over because a law enforcement officer mistakenly believed the driver had violated the law by having a broken taillight. During the stop, which involved a consensual search of the vehicle, the officer found cocaine and subsequently arrested the driver.

The Supreme Court ruled that even if an officer misunderstands the law when pulling over a vehicle, any evidence legally seized may still be used against the driver. Colorado motorists should have an understanding of when a traffic stop or search is legal, and when it violates their constitutional rights.

Mistake of law vs. mistake of fact

There are two types of mistakes a law enforcement officer could make when determining reasonable suspicion to pull over a vehicle. The first, a mistake of fact, applies to situations in which the officer simply gets the facts wrong. For example, an officer may believe that a vehicle was speeding and pulls over the wrong car.

A mistake of law occurs when an officer misunderstands the law. In the case in North Carolina, the officer believed that one broken taillight merited a traffic stop, when in fact, the law does not sanction such a stop.

As the Boulder County Bar Association points out, mistake of law and mistake of fact defenses are rarely admissible. In either case, if an officer conducts a legal search of the vehicle and finds evidence of a crime, that evidence may still be used against the driver. The key term here is a “legal search.”

When is a search legal?

The U.S. Courts provides clear guidelines on when a law enforcement officer is permitted to search a vehicle. Ideally, the officer will have probable cause and secure a warrant to conduct the search. In the event that he or she lacks a warrant, one of the following must be true:

  • The driver has given consent for the search.
  • The officer must have probable cause that there is evidence of a crime in the vehicle.
  • The officer must believe his or her safety would be compromised without the search.
  • The search occurs after the arrest of the motorist and is related to that arrest.
  • As the U.S. Courts points out, a drug-sniffing canine may be used without any reasonable suspicion.

Colorado searches

The issue of vehicle searches in Colorado has become especially tenuous in recent years with the legalization of marijuana. A report from ABC7 last year illustrated that many drivers from Colorado believe they have been profiled and even subject to illegal vehicle searches. Anyone who has questions regarding when an officer may search a vehicle should consult with an attorney.