With Orwellian irony, the U.S. Supreme Court chose December 15, National Bill of Rights Day to deliver its crushing blow to the Fourth Amendment.
Although the courts have historically held that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for breaking the law, in its 8-1 ruling in Heien v. State of North Carolina, the Supreme Court gave police in America one more ready excuse to routinely violate the laws of the land, this time under the guise of ignorance.
The Heien case, which started with an improper traffic stop based on a police officer’s ignorance of the law and ended with an unlawful search, seizure and arrest, was supposed to ensure that ignorance of the law did not become a ready excuse for government officials to routinely violate the law.
It failed to do so.
In failing to enforce the Constitution, the Court gave police the go-ahead to justify a laundry list of misconduct, from police shootings of unarmed citizens to SWAT team raids, roadside strip searches, and the tasering of vulnerable individuals.
“I didn’t know it was against the law” was the excuse police used to justify their repeated tasering of eight-months pregnant Malaika Brooks during a routine traffic stop simply because she refused to sign a speeding ticket. The cops insisted they weren’t aware that repeated electro-shocks qualified as constitutionally excessive and unreasonable force.
“I thought he was reaching for a gun.” That was the excuse given when a police officer repeatedly shot 70-year-old Bobby Canipe during a traffic stop. The cop saw the man reaching for his cane and, believing the cane to be a rifle and fearing for his life, opened fire. Police excused the shooting as “unfortunate” but “appropriate.”
“He was resisting arrest.” That was the rationale behind Eric Garner being placed in a fatal chokehold by police for allegedly resisting their attempts to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes.
And then you have the Heien case, which, while far less traumatic than Eric Garner’s chokehold death, was no less egregious in its defiance of the rule of law.
In April 2009, a police officer stopped Nicholas Heien’s car, allegedly over a faulty brake light, and during the course of the stop and subsequent search, found a sandwich bag’s worth of cocaine. In North Carolina, where the traffic stop took place, it’s not actually illegal to have only one working brake light. However, Heien—the owner of the vehicle—didn’t know that and allowed the search, which turned up drugs, and resulted in Heien’s arrest. When the legitimacy of the traffic stop was challenged in court, the arresting officer claimed ignorance and the courts deemed it a “reasonable mistake.”
I’m not sure which is worse: law enforcement officials who know nothing about the laws they have sworn to uphold, support and defend, or a constitutionally illiterate citizenry so clueless about their rights that they don’t even know when those rights are being violated.
This much I do know: going forward, it will be that much easier for police officers to write off misconduct as a “reasonable” mistake.
Whether it’s police officers breaking through people’s front doors and shooting them dead in their homes or strip searching innocent motorists on the side of the road, these instances of abuse are continually validated by a judicial system that kowtows to virtually every police demand, no matter how unjust, no matter how in opposition to the Constitution.
Indeed, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, the police and other government agents have, with the general blessing of the courts, already been given the authority to probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance.
Just consider some of the Court’s pro-police state rulings in recent years:
In Navarette v. California, the Court declared that police officers can stop cars based only on “anonymous” tips. This ruling came on the heels of a ruling by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in U.S. v. Westhoven that driving too carefully, with a rigid posture, taking a scenic route, and having acne are sufficient reasons for a police officer to suspect you of doing something illegal, detain you, search your car, and arrest you—even if you’ve done nothing illegal to warrant the stop in the first place.
In Maryland v. King, a divided Court determined police can forcibly take your DNA, whether or not you’ve been convicted of a crime. And in an effort to make life easier for “overworked” jail officials, the Court ruled in Florence v. Burlington that police can subject Americans to virtual strip searches, no matter the “offense.”
In an 8-1 ruling in Kentucky v. King, the Supreme Court gave police greater leeway to break into homes without a warrant, even if it’s the wrong home. In Hiibel v. Sixth Judicial District Court of the State of Nevada, a majority of the high court agreed that it’s a crime to not identify yourself when a policeman asks your name. And now we’ve got Heien v. North Carolina, which gives the police a green light to keep doing more of the same without fear of recrimination.
Given the turbulence of our age—with its police overreach, military training drills on American soil, domestic surveillance, profit-driven prisons, asset forfeiture schemes, wrongful convictions, and corporate corruption—it’s not difficult to predict that this latest Supreme Court ruling will open the door to even greater police abuses.
For those still deluded enough to believe they’re living the American dream—where the government represents the people, where the people are equal in the eyes of the law, where the courts are arbiters of justice, where the police are keepers of the peace, and where the law is applied equally as a means of protecting the rights of the people—it’s time to wake up.
We no longer have a representative government, a rule of law, or justice. Liberty has fallen to legalism. Freedom has fallen to fascism. Justice has become jaded, jaundiced and just plain unjust.
The dream has turned into a nightmare.
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