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As we all know, “ignorance of the law is no excuse” for breaking it. Didn’t know the speed limit? That’s no excuse, and you can bet you’ll be prosecuted for it. Didn’t know it was illegal to sit in your driveway listening to music on your car stereo after having some drinks? That’s no excuse, and you can bet you’ll be prosecuted for it. Didn’t know it was illegal to turn your heat on and take a nap in your car after having some drinks, rather than put the public at risk by driving home? That’s no excuse, and if you’re in North Carolina, you can bet you’ll be prosecuted for it.

Because ignorance of the law, even if the law is absurd, is no excuse.

But now, following the United States Supreme Court’s ruling this morning in Heien v. North Carolina (PDF of opinion), ignorance of the law is a perfectly valid excuse for police officers to violate your rights.

To be clear, police officers who are trained in the enforcement of the law are no longer required to know the law in order to detain individuals who they suspect of violating it, even if the suspected violation is itself not actually a violation of the law.

In other words, ignorance is now an excuse when the police violate Fourth Amendment rights. If you didn’t think there was a double standard in the application of the law to law enforcement before now, our Supreme Court has made sure there’s no longer any question.


Durham DWI lawyer Ben Hiltzheimer is a criminal defense attorney in Durham, North Carolina, who represents individuals charged with DWIs and the full spectrum of misdemeanors and felonies. Contact us for a free, confidential consultation and case evaluation at (919) 899-9404.

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Ben is an experienced trial lawyer who earned his law degree from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He was trained in trial practice at the nation’s preeminent Public Defender agency, the federally funded Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, described by United States Attorney General Eric Holder as “the best public defender office in the country.”

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