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To Err Is Human

In a decision that may directly impact speeding tickets in Mojave, the Supreme Court recently made it easier for an officer to pull someone over based on scanty or even inaccurate information.

In Heien v. North Carolina, an officer stopped a car due to a defective brake light. Mr. Heien consented to a vehicle search, the officer found cocaine and Mr. Heien was charged with drug trafficking. The whole affair seems rather straightforward, but there is a major problem. In North Carolina, a car only has to have one working brake light. So, the defense attorney argued that the stop was illegal and the drugs could not be used as evidence in court. It's like the officer pulled over a motorist for not having her headlights on during the day.

The officer explained that he thought the law required two working brake lights and thus his stop was legal. In Sergeant Darisse's defense, the North Carolina statute is rather poorly worded and hard to understand. Nonetheless, if defendants in Bakersfield traffic court argue that they did not know the speed limit was only 55 mph or that they were not aware that a person must signal before making a lane change, the judge would still find them guilty. According to the Supreme Court, peace officers are held to a different standard and they are allowed to make "reasonable mistakes" in the course of law enforcement.

How does Heien affect speeding tickets on I-5? It's quite common for Officer A to see a speeding car and radio ahead to Officer B with instructions to pull the car over. Under current law, Officer A must give Officer B very specific information, such as the car's license plate number. Now, a more general description - such as "a late model blue SUV" - may be enough. The good news is that there is still a burden for the state to prove beyond a "reasonable doubt" all the elements of the traffic offense here in California, even if that ticket was the wrong car.