Whoops! My bad . . . Now Go to Jail! by Blue LLP

Posted on 20 Dec 2014

 Whoops!  My bad . . . Now Go to Jail!

In Heien v. North Carolina, the US Supreme Court held that an officer's reasonable mistake of the law can justify a seizure.

On one spring morning in 2009, two men were driving a Ford Escort north on Interstate 77 in Dobson, North Carolina.  As a Surry County Sheriff's deputy observed traffic, he thought that the driver looked "very stiff and nervous[.]"  The deputy followed the car for a few miles, and when it slowed down in traffic, the deputy noticed that one of the brake lights was out.  The officer activated his blue lights and pulled the car over.  In North Carolina, it is not illegal for a car to have a single working break light.

During the stop, the officer saw the driver and another man laying across the back seat.  The officer explained that as long as the driver's license and registration checked out, he would do nothing more than write a warning ticket for the break light.  Everything checked out, but the officer became suspicious during the stop because the driver "appeared nervous[,]" the man in the back seat remained lying down the hole time, and the two gave inconsistent answers about their destination.  The officer asked for consent to search the car, and both men gave their permission.  Game over.

By now, another officer had arrived on the scene.  When they searched the car, the police found cocaine in the side compartment of a duffle bag.  Both men were arrested, and the man in the back seat was charged with attempted trafficking in cocaine.  He moved to suppress the evidence seized from the car, and the trial court denied his motion.  The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, and held that because no violation of the law occurred, the stop was unlawful.  The North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, however, and held that the officer's reasonable misinterpretation of the law made the traffic stop valid.

The US Supreme Court agreed with the North Carolina Supreme Court.  In so doing, it held that "reasonable suspicion can rest on a mistaken understanding" of the law.  It further explained, "[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them 'fair leeway for encorcing the law in the community's protection.'"  The Court goes on to equate mistakes of law with mistakes of fact, which the Court have previously found to be reasonable.  It explained:

[R]easonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion.  Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer's understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law.  The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground.  Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not was thought, the restult is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law.  There is no reason, under the text of the Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why this same result should be acceptable when reached by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but not when reached by way of a similarly reasonable mistake of law.

We share the following three critical observations about the Court's opinion in Heien:

  • First, a police officer's "reasonable" misinterpretation of the law can give rise to a valid traffic stop (and other search or seizure).  That means that if an officer initiates a traffic stop because of an objectively reasonable misinterpretation of the law, the stop will be upheld as constitutional.
  • Second, and as noted by Justice Sotomayor in the lone dissenting opinion, Heien further erodes the "Fourth Amendment's protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down" significantly.  It is clear that minimal expectation of privacy remains in vehicles travelling along the public highways (the courts have eroded what expectation of privacy previously existed over a period of decades).  As the dissent argues, "[t]his result is bad for citizens, who need to know their rights and responsibilities, and it is bad for police, who would benefit from clearer direction."
  • Third, probable cause to search did not exist in this case, and had the defendants withheld their consent, the police would have had to come up with some other reason to justify a search of the vehicle.