Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Heien v. North Carolina: Is a Reasonable Mistake Enough to Warrant a Traffic Stop?

Hein v. United States
Docket No.  13-604
Argument Date:  Oct. 6, 2014

On December 15, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States decided that a police officer’s reasonable mistake of law was enough to establish reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop and that it did not violate the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
Whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide reasonable suspicion sufficient to justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.

On April 29, 2009 Sergeant Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department was stationed on Interstate 77 watching traffic.  While he was there, he saw a Ford Escort, which was driven by Maynor Javier Vasquez.  While the Escort was slowing down and driver was applying the breaks, one of the taillights failed to light up. As a result, Sergeant Darisse pulled the Escort over and told the driver, Maynor Javier Vasquez, that he stopped the car “for a nonfunctioning brake light.”  Mr. Heien was in the passenger rear of the car.  During the traffic stop, Mr. Vasquez and Mr. Heien gave conflicting stories about where they were going and Sergeant Darisse began to suspect that there was contraband present in the car.

Although only issuing a warning about the taillight, Sergeant Darisse asked both Mr. Vasquez and Mr. Heien if there was contraband in the car and they said no.  Mr. Vasquez and Mr. Heien also consented to a search of the vehicle.  At this time another officer reported to the scene and aided Sergeant Darisse in thoroughly searching the car.  In the side compartment Sergeant Darisse found a sandwich bag of cocaine and arrested both Mr. Heien and Mr. Vasquez.  They were charged with two counts of trafficking in cocaine.
In trial, Mr. Heien tried to suppress the cocaine evidence stating that it was obtained in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.  After both officers testified and a video of the stop was shown, the trial court judge denied the motion to suppress and stated that the faulty light had given Sergeant Darisse reasonable suspicion to conduct the stop.  The trial judge further stated that the consent to the search was valid.  While reserving his right to appeal Mr. Heien plead guilty.  On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed stating that the initial stop was not valid since driving with one brake light was not actually a violation of North Carolina law.[1]  Although concluding that the a faulty brake light was not a violation of the law, the North Carolina Supreme Court held that Sergeant Darisse could have reasonably believed, despite it being a mistake, that the vehicle code required that both brake lights be in good working order.  It held that Sergeant Darisse’s mistake was a reasonable one and therefore conducting the stop was valid.

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed on discretionary review and held that there was reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle and that a reasonable mistake of law can provide reasonable suspicion. On remand, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the search of the Escort was valid and the North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed.

After stating the facts of the case, Chief Justice Roberts went into the Court’s jurisprudence regarding the Fourth Amendment.  The Fourth Amendment prevents the unreasonable searches and seizures of people or things.[2] The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is “reasonableness.”  In determining reasonableness, the Supreme Court has previously stated that the Fourth Amendment allows for mistakes of fact and those can be reasonable.  Chief Justice Roberts reasoned that mistakes of law can also be allowed in regards to reasonable suspicion, saying that reasonable suspicion stems from the officers combined understanding of both the facts and the relevant law.  In coming to this conclusion, Chief Justice Roberts looked to a number of Nineteenth Century cases showing that mistakes of law would justify probable cause in seizures under federal law.   While the facts in these old cases are not on point with the issue presented in the present case, Chief Justice Roberts stated that no Supreme Court decisions have undermined the understanding that reasonable mistakes of law can excuse governmental action.  Ultimately, the mistakes need to be “those of reasonable men.”  In looking at the statute that was at issue in the case, namely the issue with whether one or all stop lamps on the car need to be working, the Justices in the case saw that the law was ambiguous.  Chief Justice Roberts stated that since the statute refers to “a stop lamp” it could refer to the need for one stop lamp to work.  However, later on in the statute, it states that vehicles need to “have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order,” and this could mean that if the car has more than one stop lamp, all of them must be working. [3] Given this reasonable possible interpretation, the Court affirmed the North Carolina Supreme Court opinion.

At first blush, it seems that the Court’s ruling is very favorable to police conduct in regards to mistakes of law.  However, the mistakes need to be “objectively reasonable.”  As such, officers still need to understand the law and cannot rely on their subjective understanding of the law.
Given that understanding, it does not appear that the Court’s ruling changed anything about the interpretation of the Fourth Amendment.  Rather, it just added the idea that reasonable mistakes of law for ambiguous statutes is permissible.  With this addition, lawyers, both defense and prosecution, have the opportunity to make arguments about whether a stop was justified if the underlying law supporting the stop was objectively ambiguous.  

Cassandre Plantin
Senior Editor, Criminal Law Practitioner

[1] citing State v. Heien, 714 S.E.2d 827, 831 (2011).
[3] citing N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-129(g). 

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