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Why a ruling in an out-of-state case matters in Colorado

As most people know, each state has the right to establish laws that determine what are considered unlawful behaviors and how a person will be punished for committing such crimes. Take for example the use of marijuana. Here in Colorado, both retail and medical marijuana are legal provided residents and visitors abide by the laws currently in place. In other states, this isn't the case.

The application of the law, as you probably already know, is determined by jurisdictional boundaries. The reason Colorado residents generally do not concern themselves with the laws of other states is because what happens in one state typically does not affect residents in another state. This can change though when decisions are made in the U.S. Supreme Court. That's because the Supreme Court's jurisdiction spans across the nation, meaning court decisions made regarding a case out of another state can affect residents here as well.

To demonstrate this point, we'd like to present a recent Supreme Court case that could affect cases here in Colorado. The case is that of Heien v. North Carolina in which the court needed to determine whether an officer's misunderstanding of the law had resulted in an unreasonable search and seizure.

According to the facts of the case, Heien had consented to a search of his vehicle after an officer had pulled him over for a broken tail light. Upon searching the vehicle, the officer discovered what appeared to be cocaine, which prompted the arrest of Heien on charges of suspected drug trafficking. A later appeal would show that the officer had misunderstood the law regarding broken tail lights, therefore leading to the argument that the search was a violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Although an appellate court ruled in favor of Heien, North Carolina's Supreme Court disagreed -- a decision the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this month.

The reason this case matters to our Colorado readers is the fact that it calls into question the court's interpretation of "unreasonable." According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fourth Amendment only requires "reasonableness" not perfection, meaning mistakes are possible. And according to the majority opinion, these mistakes are allowable within reason.

A court decision such as this highlights the need to obtain experienced legal counsel when facing criminal charges. If some aspects of the law are open to interpretation, then defendants need someone on their side who understands it.

Source: The SCOTUS Blog, "Opinion analysis: Reasonable mistakes of law by police do not violate the Fourth Amendment," Rory Little, Dec. 15, 2014

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