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A missed opportunity in the Supreme Court’s Heien decision

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court handed their counterparts in North Carolina a victory this week, affirming the state Supreme Court’s ruling in State v. Heien and holding that that a traffic stop is justified if based upon an officer’s reasonable but mistaken belief that a violation of law has occurred.

Heien, you may recall, involved an officer’s stop of an Hispanic man driving a vehicle with a broken tail light, on the ostensible but mistaken belief that having only one tail light working was against the law in North Carolina.  A vehicle search followed, then an arrest and ultimately a conviction for cocaine trafficking.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Monday came down with barely a nod to the current climate of racial unrest and minority suspicion of policing in the community — except for the lone dissent by Justice Sonia Sostmayor — and added yet another layer of ambiguity to the bounds of reasonable policing at a time when just the opposite is needed, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick aptly points out in this essay.

Says Lithwick:

Why does any of this matter? Because Vasquez wasn’t stopped by the cops for having a broken tail light. He was trailed by an officer because he was driving while looking “stiff and nervous” and for “gripping the steering wheel at a 10 and 2 position, looking straight ahead.” In other words, he was a Hispanic man driving a beat-up car in North Carolina, and the officer followed him for doing what the rest of us do every single day: driving while holding on to a steering wheel and looking forward.

Justice Sotomayor tried to point this out during argument, but to no avail.  Lithwick adds:

You would think that we had not just lived through a summer in which we were painfully reminded of the realities of militarized police, civil asset forfeiture, racial profiling, relentless police harassment of citizens, and frivolous stops for trivial infractions. These infractions can lead to mounting debts which in many minority communities turn the criminal justice system into something like a series of debtors’ prisons. The discussion in Heien never reflects the fact that a long, sordid history of pretextual and harassing traffic stops have fostered fear and anxiety in minority communities. As President Obama put it, there is a “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.” But from the perspective of the high court, it’s as if the summer of 2014 was happening in an alternate universe.

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