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Have you ever been stopped by police because you had a taillight out? Perhaps you pulled off to the shoulder of the road to check on a child in the back seat, or pulled to the curb to confirm directions and make sure you had not missed your exit, when a police car pulls up behind you to assess the situation.

In either of these instances, it is feasible that you had done nothing wrong. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that, even where the officer made a mistake as to whether the law was being violated, he or she can still use the stop as an excuse to look for other illegal activity.

In the state where the case was based, only one brake light is required to be functioning, but the car that was the subject of the case was pulled over anyway because the officer was mistaken about whether both lights had to be illuminated. While the vehicle was stopped due to the officer's mistake regarding the law, drugs found in the car led to an arrest.

The defendant in the case argued that the stop itself was based on the officer's mistake regarding the taillight, so any evidence obtained during the stop could not be used against him. The Supreme Court disagreed and upheld the arrest.

The Court ruled that a "reasonable" mistake of fact by an officer regarding the underlying traffic violation may still support charges based on other criminal acts observed during the stop.

Most cases involving alleged traffic violations do not make it to the highest court in the country, but a case involving a traffic violation can have a long-term detrimental effect on the person charged with the offense. The decision by the Court, which must be followed in all states, including New York, can turn an otherwise routine traffic stop into more serious charges.

While this interpretation of the law may make it easier for law enforcement to bring charges, many traffic violations, as well as other charges that arise from them, may be mitigated or even dismissed.

An attorney experienced with traffic law defense might help you achieve the best outcome possible under the circumstances of your particular case.

Source: NPR, "Supreme Court Upholds North Carolina Traffic Stop," Nina Totenberg, Dec. 15, 2014

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