Heien v. North Carolina: can a mistake of law justify a stop?

Heien v. North Carolina mistake of law

This term, the U.S. Supreme Court begins hearing oral arguments on October 6, 2014. Thier first case, Heien v North Carolina, presents a pretty interesting criminal law issue: can a police officer’s reasonable, but mistaken understanding of the law be a valid basis for detaining a citizen?

Facts of Heien v. North Carolina

In order to stop a vehicle, a police officer only needs objectively reasonable suspicion of some violation of the law. In April of 2009, a North Carolina police officer became suspicious when he saw a car with one broken brake light. Nicholas Heien was a passenger and the car’s owner. The car’s left brake light worked fine, but the right light did not illuminate when the vehicle slowed. Under North Carolina law, the car was still legal since an arcane statute only requires cars manufactured after 1955 to have a single functioning brake light. The police officer did not know this, he thought that the law required both lights to work and, because of this mistake, he stopped the car and detained Heien.

The officer issued Heien a warning for the light and then got his consent to search. After about 40 minutes of digging through the car, he found a plastic bag containing cocaine. Heien was arrested and charged with drug trafficking. Heien moved the trial judge to suppress the cocaine since there was no legal basis to stop the car. The trial judge denied the motion and so Heien pled guilty to drug trafficking while preserving his right to appeal. He was sentenced to 20-24 months in prison.

Heien appealed and the first appeals court reversed the trial judge, ruling that the stop was no good. The State appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court and they reversed holding 4-3 that the officer was wrong about the law, but his mistake was reasonable and so the stop was constitutionally valid. In April of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

What’s going to happen?

When the court finds that police acted improperly and thereby developed evidence of a crime, the normal remedy is exclusion of the evidence seized. But the Supreme Court has slowly chipped away at the “exclusionary rule” sometimes finding that though police acted improperly, the mistake was made in “good faith” and the evidence should be allowed at trial. But the North Carolina Supreme Court has found that the state constitution prohibits such a good faith exception to the exclusionary rule. This means that the U.S. Supreme Court does not get to decide the remedy issue; the stop is either good and the evidence is in or it’s bad and the evidence is out. Other jurisdictions, like Maine, allow a good faith exception.

Mistakes can sometimes justify a traffic stop. The Supreme Court has already carved out exceptions for stops based on a reasonable mistake of fact. For instance, if the police think they see an expired inspection sticker, the stop can be valid even if it turns out the sticker was good.

But a mistake of law seems fundamentally different. The constitutional question has always been to measure the information the officer reasonably believed against the true law of the land and to see if there was is an objectively reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing to justify the stop. To allow police to measure their observations against a mistaken understanding of the law seems pretty wrong and may even incentivize poor training and institutional misinterpretation of the law. As the dissenters on the North Carolina Supreme Court said:

Proper enforcement of the law requires accurate knowledge of the law…to decide otherwise is to endorse the fundamental unfairness of holding citizens to the traditional rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse while allowing those entrusted to enforce the law to be ignorant of it.

More about Heien v North Carolina

Image from Steve Snodgrass via flickr creative commons

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