Can a police officer’s misinterpretation of the law provide the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop?
On April 29, 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse arrested Nicholas Heien in North Carolina after a traffic stop that Darisse initiated based on his misinterpretation of relevant state statutes. When Heien tried to exclude evidence that resulted from the traffic stop during his subsequent trial, the trial court denied his request. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision, holding that an officer cannot justify a traffic stop when a mistake of law serves as the primary justification for the stop. In December 2012, the North Carolina Supreme Court overturned the appellate court’s ruling. The Supreme Court of the United States will now consider whether a police officer’s mistake of law can serve as the requisite reasonable suspicion needed for a constitutional traffic stop. Heien argues that allowing police officers to base traffic stops on misinterpretations of the law would violate the Fourth Amendment rights of those stopped. North Carolina, however asserts that just as police officers can execute constitutional traffic stops by relying on reasonable mistakes of fact, a police officer can justify a stop if it is based on a reasonable but mistaken interpretation of a statute. The Court’s ruling implicates the Fourth Amendment practices of law enforcement, the right to privacy of individuals, and the right of individuals to be free from restraint.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop.
On April 29, 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina pulled over a vehicle in which Nicholas Heien was a passenger. See State v. Heien, 737 S.E.2d 351, 352 (N.C. 2012). Darisse initiated the stop because one of the rear brake lights on the vehicle was not working properly.
The authors would like to thank Professor Sherry Colb of Cornell Law School for her help and for directing them to her work on Heien v. North Carolina.
- Sherry Colb, Verdict: U.S. Supreme Court Considers Whether the Fourth Amendment Allows Reasonable Mistakes of Substantive Law, Part 1 (Apr. 30, 2014); U.S. Supreme Court Considers Whether the Fourth Amendment Allows Reasonable Mistakes of Substantive Law, Part 2 (May 5, 2014).
- Brittanee Friedman, Suffolk Law Review: Case Comment - Evidence Seized Based on Reasonable Police Mistake of Law Held Admissible in North Carolina Court (Mar. 15, 2014).