How many times have you heard “Ignorance of the law is no excuse!”, meaning that a person can break the law and still be charged with a crime, even if he does not know that he is breaking the law.

An example would be HANGING UP THE PHONE WHEN YOUR PARTNER IS TRYING TO CALL 911. This often arises in domestic violence cases. Two spouses are arguing vigorously, and one person says: “I am calling 911” and proceeds to make that call. The other partner, who thinks the last thing the couple needs is the involvement of police in this fight, HANGS UP THE PHONE. It is a crime to keep a party from making a police report, a violation of Penal Code 136. It is also a specific violation to interfere with another person attempting to call 911.

Police must follow up on interrupted 911 calls as a matter of procedure.  When the officers respond, one or both of the parties admit that one of the partners hung up the phone when the other party tried to call police to report a domestic violence. Now in addition to being a suspect in a domestic violence case, the party who hung up the phone, in ignorance of the law, may well be charged with a crime!

Except in North Carolina if you are a cop, that is. In Heien v. North Carolina, the United States Supreme Court decided the legality of a North Carolina police officer’s stop of an automobile due to a non-working brake light. The problem was that the law in that jurisdiction only required a vehicle to have at least ONE working brake light.

This seems like a no-brainer. The police stopped the vehicle without any probable cause. As anyone who has mastered high school civics or watches police dramas on TV understands, that means that the automobile was stopped without probable cause and under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Wong Sun v. United States, that made any evidence found during the automobile search “fruit of the poisonous tree” and inadmissible under the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The U.S. Supreme Court did not see the case that way, however, and allowed the automobile search that was made by the police officer who in good faith, WAS IGNORANT ABOUT THE BRAKE LIGHT REQUIREMENT in the North Carolina vehicle code! In other words, the U. S. Supreme Court believed that the police officer’s ignorance of the North Carolina law WAS a legitimate excuse to stop the vehicle and search the car.

If you or someone you know is accused of a crime, arrested, or contacted by police, contact San Jose criminal defense attorney Maureen Baldwin at (408) 279-4450 to learn your options today!