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. See id. While speaking to Heien and the driver of the vehicle, Maynor Javier Vazquez, during the stop, Darisse became suspicious of the young men because Vazquez and Heien gave inconsistent stories about their destination. See id. Upon receiving consent from Heien, who owned the vehicle, Darisse searched the car and found a sandwich bag containing cocaine. See id. After discovering the cocaine, Darisse placed Vazquez and Heien under arrest and charged them with trafficking cocaine. See id. at 353.
Heien moved to suppress the evidence seized during the search of his vehicle, arguing that the State violated his rights guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. See id. Under North Carolina law, Heien argued, vehicles are required to have only one working rear brake light, and, because Heien’s car had one working rear brake light, Darisse did not have the requisite reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop. See id. The statute at issue, N.C.G.S. § 20-129 states, “[n]o person shall sell or operate on the highways of the [North Carolina] any motor vehicle . . . unless it shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle.” See N.C.G.S. § 20-129(g). However, another subsection of this statute, which Darisse relied upon when making the stop, requires that “[e]very motor vehicle . . . have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order, which lamps shall exhibit a red light plainly visible.” See N.C.G.S. § 20-129(d). Despite the ambiguity in the Vehicle Light Statute, the trial court denied the motion to suppress the evidence of cocaine, ruling that Darisse had reasonable suspicion that the driver was violating a North Carolina law by driving with a dysfunctional brake light. See Heien, 737 S.E.2d at 353. Therefore, the trial court found that stop was constitutional. See id.
On appeal, the Court of Appeals of North Carolina interpreted the Vehicle Light Statute as only requiring one working rear brake light. See id. The court ruled that Darisse’s initial stop occurred because of his misinterpretation of the statute; thus, the stop was unconstitutional and violated Heien’s Fourth Amendment rights. See id. at 354. According to the court, a traffic stop based on a law enforcement official’s mistake of law is automatically unreasonable. See id. The Court of Appeals thus reversed the trial court’s decision. See id. at 353.
After granting North Carolina’s request for discretionary review, the Supreme Court of North Carolina considered whether a police officer’s mistake of law could still provide the requisite reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop. See id. at 354. The court did not consider whether the Vehicle Light Statute required more than one working brake light. See id. Because the purpose of the Fourth Amendment is to ensure that police officers act reasonably, the court held that police officers should be able to make traffic stops based on reasonable interpretations of law. See id. at 356. In Heien’s case, Darisse, although mistaken about the substantive law, had reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop. See id. at 359. The court thus reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals of North Carolina and ruled the stop constitutional. See id. Subsequently, Heien appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. See Brief for Petitioner, Nicholas Brady Heien, at 7.
The parties in this case disagree over whether a police officer’s misinterpretation of North Carolina’s Vehicle Light Statute, even if objectively reasonable, can provide the reasonable suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop. See Brief for Petitioner at 8; see Brief for Respondent at 7. Heien argues that the traffic stop at issue violated his Fourth Amendment rights because Sergeant Darisse did not have reasonable suspicion that Heien had violated a law. See Brief for Petitioner at 8. However, North Carolina argues that since Sergeant Darisse had reason to believe that Heien was breaking a traffic law, the traffic stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment. See Brief for Respondent at 7.
The parties further disagree on whether a reasonable mistake of law should negate a violation of an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights. See Brief for Petitioner at 23–25; Brief for Respondent at 33. Heien contends that even if a reasonable mistake of law leads to the admission of evidence stemming from that reasonable mistake, that mistake should not render the search legal and thus, not a violation of the civilian’s Fourth Amendment rights. See Brief for Petitioner at 23–25. In opposition, North Carolina counters than forcing courts to determine the differences between mistakes affecting rights and mistakes affecting remedies will become too complicated. See Brief for Respondent at 33–34.
CAN A MISTAKE OF LAW GIVE RISE TO REASONABLE SUSPICION?
Heien argues that whether an officer has reasonable suspicion depends on the correct interpretation of the law as applied to the facts. See Brief for Petitioner at 12. Heien argues that the Supreme Court’s precedent has dictated that the test for reasonable suspicion is an objective two-step analysis. See Brief for Petitioner at 13; see Reply Brief for Petitioner, Heien at 3. The first step of the analysis involves a determination of facts, and the second step involves whether the rule of law is violated when applied to the facts. See id. Thus, a court must evaluate whether the facts give rise to a reasonable suspicion “that a driver is violating an applicable traffic regulation.” See Brief for Petitioner at 13 (quoting Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 817 (1996) (internal quotation marks omitted)). Heien contends that the purpose of the reasonable suspicion standard is to constrain the exercise of discretion by government officials, including police officers, in order to protect the privacy of individuals against subjective seizures. See id. at 14. Heien also argues that the traditional rule is that ignorance of the law excuses no one, including those entrusted to enforce the law. See id. at 17; Reply Brief for Petitioner at 2.
North Carolina responds that if law enforcement officers have a reasonable suspicion that a driver is breaking a traffic law, that officer can stop the vehicle and conduct a search. See Brief for Respondent at 10. North Carolina further asserts that the reasonable suspicion standard examines whether, under the totality of the circumstances, the police officer had an objective basis for suspecting that the particular person he stopped was engaging in a crime. See id. at 11. Therefore, regardless of whether an officer erroneously believed that the driver was violating a law, the police officer’s actions may still pass the objectively reasonable standard. See id.
MISTAKE OF FACT VS. MISTAKE OF LAW
Heien maintains that the Fourth Amendment allows traffic stops based on reasonable mistakes of fact but not traffic stops based on reasonable mistakes of law. See Brief for Petitioner at 20. Heien explains that this distinction exists because officers need flexibility in making good-faith mistakes of fact, due to the necessity of making fast factual assessments in the workplace. See id. However, Heien claims that courts examining the legality of traffic stops have already demonstrated that officers can easily distinguish mistakes of law from those of fact. See id. at 21. Moreover, Heien asserts that even if officers cannot easily distinguish between mistakes of law and those of fact, officers have several ways of obtaining legal guidance on unclear substantive law. See Reply Brief for Petitioner at 8. As examples, Heien notes that police departments can confer with their lawyers to clarify statutory directives or obtain opinion letters from attorney generals’ offices. See id. They can also request declaratory judgments, seek advisory opinions, and ask legislatures to amend confusing statutes. See id. at 8–9.
In opposition, North Carolina asserts that treating mistakes of fact and mistakes of law the same is justified because of the ambiguity that police officers face during the course of their duties. See Brief for Respondent at 14. North Carolina argues that an officer may struggle in interpreting intricate state laws and that, with new and continually changing laws, police officers cannot be expected to be legal experts. See id. at 15. Furthermore, North Carolina argues that mistakes of law can be objectively reasonable. See id. at 16. According to North Carolina, the decision as to whether a mistake of law is objectively reasonable takes into consideration whether the controlling law is confusing and contradictory, as well as whether a mistaken interpretation of law is common knowledge. See id. North Carolina concedes that objectively reasonable mistakes of law are rare and that traffic laws are generally straightforward and clear, but the traffic law at issue in this case is not. See id. at 17. North Carolina also claims that courts struggle to distinguish between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law and that this struggle must be even worse for police officers. See id. at 20.
REASONABLE MISTAKES OF LAW AND REMEDIES
Heien argues that with certain mistakes of law, the reasonableness of a police officer’s mistake of law is relevant to a Fourth Amendment violation, but this relevance is strictly limited to remedies and does not extend to rights. See Brief for Petitioner at 23. Heien asserts that a reasonable mistake of law may render evidence that would otherwise be inadmissible admissible, but it should not make the traffic stop—based on a reasonable mistake of law—legal under the Fourth Amendment. See id. at 25. Heien contends that if the Court does not restrict the reasonableness of mistakes of law to remedies, then courts will have to distinguish between mistakes affecting rights and mistakes affecting remedies, causing confusion and unnecessary spending of judicial resources. See id. at 30. Further, Heien maintains that courts can evaluate important evidence relevant to reasonableness determinations at the remedy stage such as police customs, training manuals, and court decisions, but these resources are off-limits when addressing rights. See id. at 31. According to Heien, validating the use of evidence such as training manuals or customs when addressing rights would produce unacceptable variation in Fourth Amendment rights. See id. at 31–33; Reply Brief for Petitioner at 12.
North Carolina responds by asserting that courts will be overburdened by having to assess whether an officer’s mistake of law was reasonable. See Brief for Respondent at 33. North Carolina argues that officers have easily applied the Terry rule, which states that if the law enforcement reasonably suspects that a person is armed and dangerous, they may conduct a frisk or a quick pat-down of the person’s outer clothing. See Brief for Respondent at 33. Furthermore, although the Supreme Court of North Carolina no longer recognizes the exclusionary rule’s good-faith exception, which allows the government to use evidence gained from a reasonable search or seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment, it is in the minority of state courts on this issue. See id. Thus, North Carolina contends that Heien’s argument of saving the issue for the remedy stage saves no judicial resources. See id. at 34. North Carolina also points out that reasonable suspicion issues often arise in the context of traffic stops and that most traffic laws are clear and simple; thus, assessing whether mistakes of law are objectionably reasonable will not add significant work to the courts’ duties. See id.
The Supreme Court will determine whether a police officer can meet the requisite standard of reasonable suspicion by initiating a traffic stop on the basis of a mistake of law. See Brief for Petitioner at i. Heien argues that allowing officers to make traffic stops based on mistakes of law would violate the Fourth Amendment rights of those stopped because the facts known to the officer reveal only innocent conduct. See id. at 8. North Carolina, while arguing that stops based on mistakes of law are constitutional, asserts that forbidding officers from making traffic stops based on mistakes of law will cause officers to be more hesitant and uncertain in making stops, thereby allowing guilty conduct to go unpunished. See Brief for Respondent, North Carolina, at 9.
LAW ENFORCEMENT AND SOCIETY
According to Heien, if officers can initiate traffic stops based on mistakes of law, they may lack incentive to learn the law and act in accordance with it. See Brief for Petitioner at 37. Heien argues that police officers would take advantage of ambiguities in the law and interpret statutes aggressively in order to justify most traffic stops. See id. Because officers have several resources available to them that would aid them in learning the correct law, such as training and technology, Heien and an amicus, the Rutherford Institute, contend that requiring a correct interpretation of the law to support reasonable suspicion would encourage law enforcement officers to use these resources. See id. at 38; Brief of Amicus Curiae Rutherford Institute, in Support of Petitioner at 4–5.
On the other hand, the United States, writing in support of North Carolina, asserts that by not allowing officers to make stops based on mistakes of law, officers may be deterred from making stops in times when they face uncertainty. See Brief of Amicus Curiae United States, in Support of Respondent at 12. According to North Carolina, officers in the field do not have time to do legal analysis or to call lawyers prior to making stops, and citizens should not expect them to be legal experts. See Brief for Respondent at 15. Rather, society expects police officers to enforce the law as they reasonably understand it. See id. at 41.
FOURTH AMENDMENT RIGHTS
Heien asserts that traffic stops based on mistakes of law violate the Fourth Amendment and that too many innocent citizens would be subject to traffic stops as a result of allowing a mistake of law to justify such a stop. See Brief for Petitioner at 8–11. In addition, Heien argues that citizens should not be exposed to traffic stops, which substantially infringe on their liberty, for wholly innocent conduct. See id. at 39. Of more concern to Heien is that simple traffic stops can quickly turn into more invasive searches and seizures. See id. at 40. According to an amicus for Heien, the Rutherford Institute, police officers often stop individuals for minor crimes in order to investigate more serious crimes for which they do not have reasonable suspicion. See Brief of the Rutherford Institute at 6. The Rutherford Institute asserts that a ruling in favor of North Carolina will cause an increase in the number of legally baseless searches. See id. at 5–6. Additionally, the Rutherford Institute claims that even the most limited of searches can be a substantial invasion of privacy. See id. at 7–8.
In opposition to these arguments, amici for North Carolina, Wisconsin, the District of Columbia, and eighteen other states, assert that a ruling in favor of Respondent would have a very limited impact on Fourth Amendment rights. See Brief of Amici Curiae Wisconsin et al., in Support of Respondent at 4. They argue that stops will only be allowed when a statute is ambiguous and when the mistake of law is objectively reasonable. See id. at 5, 18. Additionally, according to the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys (“APA”) and other prosecutorial organizations, justifying stops based on mistakes of law will not lead to abuse of this rule. See Brief for Amicus Curiae Association of Prosecuting Attorneys et al., in Support of Respondent at 15. The APA and other organizations assert that once a statute is challenged in court, a misinterpretation associated with the statute will become far less reasonable; therefore, law enforcement cannot repeatedly exploit the same ambiguities in a statute. See id. Moreover, the United States maintains that even though these stops intrude on the privacy of individuals, many people would prefer that these brief stops take place when their purpose is ensuring the safety of those in the vehicle. See Brief of the United States at 22–23.
The Court is faced with the issue of whether a mistake of law on behalf of a police officer can justify a traffic stop. The Court will clarify whether a police officer’s mistake of law can serve as the basis for the reasonable suspicion needed to make a traffic stop constitutional. While Heien argues that mistakes of law, no matter how reasonable, can never provide the reasonable suspicion needed for a constitutional traffic stop, North Carolina contends that objectively reasonable mistakes of law can support a finding of reasonable suspicion for a constitutional traffic stop. In sum, this case implicates the practices of law enforcement, the right to privacy of individuals, and the right of individuals to be free from restraint.
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).