September 21, 2020

High Court sides with N.C. police officer who misunderstood law


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car-tail-lightsBy Marcia Coyle, From Supreme Court Brief

Police officers who base searches and seizures on a mistaken understanding of the law do not automatically run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday in a case involving a faulty brake light.

The justices, in an 8-1 decision in Heien v. North Carolina, held that an officer’s reasonable mistake of law can provide the reasonable suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify searches and seizures.

“We have recognized that searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact can be reasonable,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority. For example, he explained, a warrantless search of a home is reasonable and remains lawful when officers obtain the consent of someone who reasonably appears to be but is not in fact a resident. “But reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion,” Roberts said. “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.”

In Heien, a North Carolina police officer stopped Nicholas Heien’s vehicle after noticing the driver looked stiff and nervous and only one of the vehicle’s brake lights was working. While writing a warning citation, the officer became suspicious of the driver and passenger Heien because of their actions and answers to his questions. He asked for and received consent to search the vehicle. He found a plastic bag containing cocaine.

At trial, Heien moved to suppress the cocaine evidence, arguing that the officer’s stop and search violated the Fourth Amendment. Heien’s motion was denied but an intermediate appellate court reversed, finding that the initial stop was not valid because driving with one working brake light was not a violation of North Carolina law. The state supreme court, however, reversed that decision, concluding, for several reasons, that the officer could have reasonably read the vehicle code to require two working brake lights.

Roberts wrote that cases dating back two centuries have treated factual and legal errors alike in this context. And, he rejected claims by Heien and his supporters that the court’s decision would discourage police officers from learning the law.

“The Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes—whether of fact or of law—must be objectively reasonable,” he said. “We do not examine the subjective understanding of the particular officer involved.”

Justice Elena Kagan, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote a concurring opinion in which she emphasized the limitations in Roberts’ opinion.

“A court tasked with deciding whether an officer’s mistake of law can support a seizure thus faces a straightforward question of statutory construction,” Kagan wrote. “If the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable mistake. But if not, not. And indeed, both North Carolina and the Solicitor General agreed that such cases will be ‘exceedingly rare.'”

However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the lone dissenter, said the court’s reasonableness inquiry and justification for it have always turned on an officer’s factual conclusions and an officer’s expertise with respect to those factual conclusions.

“Departing from this tradition means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down,” she warned. “One is left to wonder, however, why an innocent citizen should be made to shoulder the burden of being seized whenever the law may be susceptible to an interpretive question.”

Reacting to the decision, Jeffrey Fisher of Stanford Law School, counsel to Heien, said, “We’re obviously disappointed with the court’s decision. But we take some solace in the fact that the lead opinion and the concurrence stress that it should be ‘exceedingly rare’ that courts will deem police mistakes of law to be reasonable.”

Heien was supported in amicus briefs by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Cato Institute, the American Civil Liberties Union, Gun Owners Foundation and others. North Carolina drew support from 19 states and the District of Columbia and the National District Attorneys Association, among others.

IMAGE: diephosi /

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