Another 4th Amendment debate, this time over your car's high beams

We recently went through a rather protracted debate over applications of the 4th Amendment in general and the case of Utah v. Strieff in particular. In that case, a questionable stop resulted in the discovery of illegal drugs in a car driven by someone with an outstanding warrant on an unrelated charge. Now there’s another case in New Jersey which raises similar questions and the state supreme court has gone in a different direction than the Supremes took in the aforementioned one. (The Supreme Court ruled that the resulting evidence discovered by the police was admissible in Strieff.) In this scenario, a driver with their high beams on in an otherwise deserted street was found to have an illegal weapon. (

New Jersey’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that an Essex County sheriff’s officer violated the state constitution when he pulled over a motorist for using high beams when there were no other cars on the road.

The state Supreme Court upheld a trial court ruling suppressing weapons evidence found on the passenger of the vehicle, Al-Sharif Scriven, because it was the product of an unreasonable search.

The case stemmed from a November 2013 incident in which the sheriff’s officer, David Cohen, was waiting for a tow truck to remove an unregistered vehicle from the street around 3 a.m.

In some ways this may prove an even better test case than Strieff’s, though I have a feeling the Supreme Court wouldn’t see it the same way as I do. Scriven was, from all descriptions, doing nothing wrong. Having your high beams on when there is no oncoming traffic is not, to my knowledge, against the law anywhere. If so, then why sell cars with high beams? It’s the responsibility of the driver to dim them to avoid blinding any oncoming traffic. Since his was the only car on the street at the time it’s fair to criticize the deputy for flagging him down, even though he stated his original intention was only to issue him a verbal warning about the high beams and send him on his way.

With that as the backdrop, we get to the meat of the case. The deputy approaches the car and reports smelling marijuana from inside the vehicle. Again, we’re not talking about a terribly serious crime here, but if a cop smells some pot he’s likely going to ask questions. The resulting search turned up a stolen gun with a magazine larger than is allowed by state law. (I know… I know. Don’t even get me started on that one, but it’s the law on the books in New Jersey at the moment.) Scriven is then placed under arrest on charges of unlawful possession of a handgun, possession of hollow-nose bullets and receiving stolen property. At trial he walked on a technicality because all of the evidence was Fruit of the Poisonous Tree.

We will no doubt have this debate, particularly with Libertarians, until the cows come home but nothing changes the underlying facts. Yes, the man was pulled over for a totally bogus reason. But he had a stolen gun full of hollow point rounds! Nobody – not even the defendant – is denying it. And now he gets to walk? What next… did they have to give him his gun back too? For all of the complaints we hear from the anti-gun rights lobby, one of the chief responses from Second Amendment supporters is that the government doesn’t do enough to enforce the laws we actually have on the books before we begin talking about more restrictions. Here’s a textbook case of a guy who shouldn’t have a gun, but we’re going to let him walk. Why? Because the original reason he encountered the cops wasn’t legitimate?

I’m sorry. I suppose that in the end, my complaint isn’t so much with the specific circumstances of each arrest or the current interpretation of the Fourth Amendment, but with the entire Poisonous Tree doctrine. The fact that law enforcement didn’t know ahead of time that you might be a dangerous criminal does not, in my opinion, outweigh the reality that you were in fact a dangerous criminal. Letting this guy walk on that sort of technicality is a travesty of justice and doesn’t serve the larger cause of enforcing the law and keeping us safe.


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