Everyone has heard the term “ignorance is no excuse.” In fact, most people have probably used it at one time or another. A slightly different version, “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” has been quoted by Judges for as long as Courts have been in existence. However, a recent Supreme Court case has clarified this saying, and it appears that ignorance is indeed an acceptable excuse – for law enforcement.


The recent decision in Heien v. North Carolina (2014) has turned logical thinking on its head. Mr. Heien was a passenger in a vehicle pulled over because he only had one working brake light and a subsequent search of this vehicle resulted in the discovery of drugs in his vehicle. Seems like a straight-forward case. However, in North Carolina drivers are only required to have at least one working brake light. Mr. Heien appealed his conviction on the basis that the stop was an illegal stop – not supported by North Carolina law. The case eventually ended up in the Supreme Court, where they decided that the stop indeed was legal even though it was a stop for a crime that didn’t exist. Their reasoning was: “Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer’s understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law. The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground. Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not what was though, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law.” What this essentially breaks down to is that as long as the officer’s mistakes can be determined to be “reasonable,” then the officer’s ignorance is excusable and the resulting consequences to the average citizen will stand.


Utah Appellate Courts at one time required law enforcement officers to have a valid legal basis for the underlying traffic stop or have the evidence of a separate crime suppressed. However, as recent as 2012 the Utah Court of Appeals held the opinion that as long as a law enforcement officer has a reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime was committed, whether a crime was actually committed is irrelevant.


The conclusion that the Supreme Court came up with in the Heien decision naturally leads one to wonder, if ignorance of the law is no excuse for the common citizen, then why is it an excuse for law enforcement. Ignorance of something is not knowing, or not being informed. Being ignorant of a crime is not knowing that a law exists and acting in a way that violates the law. Nonexistence simply means that something that does not exist. That the vehicle Heien was a passenger in was not violating any law, and thus should not have been stopped, and subsequently searched, was dismissed with splitting of legal hairs. Their reasoning is that although a person cannot be punished for the crime that led to the stop, they can be punished for what resulted from the stop due to the “reasonable” mistake (ignorance) of the officer. What this means for the average citizen is that you are held to a higher standard than law enforcement. You, the average citizen, are held to a standard that you should know the law, but those who are paid to uphold the law are not.