A Broken Brake Light, 54.2 Grams of Cocaine, and a Mistaken Police Officer: Heien v. North Carolina

On October 6, the Supreme Court heard arguments for the case Heien v. North Carolina. The case has to do with the 4th Amendment and an erroneous decision by a police officer.

Here is a tweet:

Here are the Facts:

In 2010, Sergeant Darisse, part of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina, pulled over a car with a broken brake light. The police officer searched the car, with consent, and found the driver in possession of a bag of cocaine. The driver was arrested and charged with attempted drug trafficking. This seems like a pretty simple 4th Amendment case: a police officer had probable cause to search the car (evidently the driver and another person in the car were acting strangely and presented contradicting stories) and found illicit material that warranted arrest. So why did this case make it all the way to the Supreme Court?

Because a North Carolina law only requires one brake light to work.

Here’s the actual text of the provision of North Carolina law that Darisse mistakenly acted upon:

No person shall sell or operate on the highways of the State any motor vehicle, motorcycle or motor-driven cycle, manufactured after December 31, 1955, unless it shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle. The stop lamp shall display a red or amber light visible from a distance of not less than 100 feet to the rear in normal sunlight, and shall be actuated upon application of the service (foot) brake. The stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.

Heien, who was in the car, was found to be innocent in the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The police officer erred and searched the car without probable cause and found illicit material under false pretenses. In fact, the law says that tail lights must be working but tail lights are distinct from brake lights. The North Carolina Supreme Court, however, disagreed, but not with the text of the law. They ruled that as long as the mistake made by the police officer was “reasonable,” he was in the right to stop the car. That is, the North Carolina Supreme Court said since the police officer thought it was reasonable that the two-brake light policy be law, given ambiguities in the state law text and the laws of other states, it was alright to stop the car and search.

Understanding the Case Further

It’s important to understand the central issue of this case: The Fourth Amendment – This amendment protects individuals (and their houses, papers, effects) from unwarranted searches and seizures. In other words, unless the police officer had a search warrant and/or “probable cause” (a highly debated term, but generally thought to meant if the person was committing a crime), the citizen can roam freely without the threat of a police search of them or their property.

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. – 4th Amendment, U.S. Constitution

A few other terms that are important to understand are:

  • The Exclusionary Rule – grounded in the 4th Amendment, the exclusionary rule protects citizens from evidence illegally obtained, such as through a violation of that amendment. For example, if a police officer searches your house without probable cause and finds illicit material in your house, that cannot be used as evidence against you in a trial.
  • The Good-Faith Exception – an exemption from the exclusionary rule, the good-faith exception states that use of evidence illegally obtained is alright at a trial if the police officer who obtained the evidence had good reason to believe that his/her actions were legal.
  • The good-faith exception was established at the federal level in a pair of Supreme Court cases but has not been formally incorporated to the states which means that each state has determined whether it will follow the exception.

The defense is arguing that the police officer had no right to stop the car because the officer saw legal activity and thus had no cause to stop, search, and seize. The question this case asks is if a mistake of law by a police officer can justify a fourth amendment search, though, not if the good-faith exemption would protect the police officer.

As Orin Kerr so wonderfully explains in his thoughts in the Washington Post:

It’s critical to understand that there are three basic ways that the Heien case could be ultimately resolved under federal law. Here are the three legal paths courts could take:

  1. They could hold that the stop was lawful and the evidence should therefore be admitted.
  2. They could hold that the stop was unlawful but that the exclusionary rule does not apply under the “good faith” exception, so that the evidence should be admitted.
  3. They could hold that the stop was unlawful and that the exclusionary rule applies, so that the evidence should be suppressed.

An unusual part about Heien is that the Supreme Court isn’t being asked to pick among these three options. Instead, the Court has two options: It can either decide that the stop was lawful (choice #1) or that it was unlawful (either choice #2 or #3). The decision between #2 and #3 is not before the Court: The issue comes to the Court as a case about what violates the Fourth Amendment, not which violations of the Fourth Amendment trigger the exclusionary rule.

The Arguments

Heien is arguing that there is a fundamental difference between mistakes of law and mistakes of fact. While the Supreme Court has, in the past, ruled that factual determinations made by police officers should be at least reasonable, not necessarily correct, they have not ruled on legal determinations made by police officers. Heien says that there is no excuse for police officers to be uninformed of the law.

Both parties presented founding-era cases that showed officials making erroneous decisions. This evidence remains split between the parties. While the Marshall Court ruled that an officer who doubts the “true construction” of the law is as reasonable as a doubt of the fact, the federal government also concluded that ignorance of the law is no excuse for either an officer or a private citizen.

Heien is arguing that law has distinguished between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law. While true, these distinctions are very loose and semantically poorly defined. According to Rory Little in this article at SCOTUSBlog, North Carolina has argued for a unitary rule, something along the lines of “any mistake, if reasonable, can support Fourth Amendment action.” This fits better into existing law, since the 4th Amendment prevents “unreasonable” searches and seizures.

Justices made a particular note of their discontent in the case, declaring this case to be an artificial 4th Amendment case and a waste of time.

The justices’ discussion focused mainly on the question of what is “reasonable,” which predictably led to utter confusion about the outer limits of such an ambiguous and arbitrary term.

The Defense Should Win

This was tough for me. I personally believe that Heien should be given a punishment for cocaine possession and I don’t think he should expect freedom from the law when he is not following it. That being said, if I were to evaluate this case with the evidence at hand, I believe I would rule in Heien’s favor. There are a couple of arguments made by Orin Kerr in his aforementioned article with which I particularly agree.

The difference between remedy and right. Recent law developments about the 4th Amendment have asked two different types of questions on the 4th Amendment: Questions about the right ask about the facts: were the rules followed? Questions about the remedy ask if the police officer can be blamed for mistakes he/she made. The key issue North Carolina brought up in Heien is about whether the police officer should be blamed for stopping the car. This, however, deals with the remedy, not the right. Kerr’s suggestion is that the Courts should rule for the defense on the rights question and then remand (send back to the trial court) for the state courts to decide what remedy is appropriate. I fully agree. Kerr notes that North Carolina does not have a good-faith exemption which means this should be a pretty simple case on both levels. Interestingly, while both parties focused on the rights question in oral arguments, the justices seemed to be concerned with the remedy question. The judges’ questions seemed to indicated they were using the remedy as the starting point for the rights question (i.e. the evidence was permissible under the good-faith rule which means violating the 4th Amendment doesn’t matter), which doesn’t make sense. The whole point of constitutional deliberation is to avoid the means-ends debate and instead focus on what the constitution actually says, not what it should say. The remand suggestion that Kerr makes is also Heien’s argument, but Scalia disagreed. Scalia believed that if he was ruling on the rights he should also be ruling on the remedy. He criticized Heien, who said neither party had prepared discussion of the remedy in their brief to the court.

Another argument made by Kerr is an issue with retroactivity. Retroactivity can be understood in the context of ex post facto lawsEx post facto laws are laws that retroactively punish a crime. Here’s an example: let’s say in the US, smoking marijuana is totally legal. But in 2025, a new law passes that makes smoking marijuana a federal crime. Ex post facto laws would make it okay to arrest a person who had was smoking before 2025 because the act was illegal in 2025. This is clearly unfair, which is why ex post facto laws are not allowed in the US. As Kerr notes, retroactivity law changes the legal state of all other 4th Amendment cases. In other words, the new ruling would be applied to other 4th Amendment cases this term, which would totally alter the facts and circumstances of those cases, perhaps punishing people for crimes for which they should not be punished, very similar to an ex post facto law.

Kerr’s third argument is that the debate over a “reasonable mistake of the law” seems to not be worthwhile. Instead of the Supreme Court rule on a mistake of a state law, the state should be forced to just change the brake lights law or clarify to its police officers. Since ruling for North Carolina would excuse poor law writing and law following, it seems illogical the Supreme Court would vote for such shenanigans.

Kerr’s fourth argument, and my personal favorite, is that police officers should be held to the same standard as citizens. This was strongly echoed in an article in Bloomberg View, written by Noah Feldman, professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University. There is a precedent for a reasonable mistake of fact by police officers, one that the Supreme Court has found. However, there isn’t much of a precedent for a reasonable mistake of law by police officers. It follows the logic of the 4th Amendment, which protects citizens from government intrusions into their property, that citizens should expect a freedom from police stops if they are not flaunting a disregard for the law. It is essentially the police officer’s duty, of anyone, to know the law and to enforce it. If the police officer makes a mistake in understanding the law, he/she should be punished. A basic court case for this example is People v. MarreroIn this case, a federal prison guard was convicted of possessing a weapon, which violated the state law that provided exceptions for “corrections officers … of any penal institutions.” A lower court ruled that “any penal institutions” only meant state prisons because it was New York state law. Kerr describes the result: “New York’s high court then ruled that Marrero could not assert a mistake of law defense in light of this ruling. Ignorance of the law was no excuse, even if “the law” was handed down in a surprising way only after the defendant’s arrest.” While this may not apply to remedies cases, the Court should still be ruling on the right.

Recently, however, there has been a trend in the Supreme Court to err on the side of the police and develop apathy for the criminal defendant, partially due to the aforementioned arbitrariness of the standard of “reasonableness.” Leading to a crumbling of the exclusionary rule and broadening of the good-faith rule, this can be thought of as similar to the “innocent until proven guilty” rule, except with recent jurisprudential trends the rule of thumb may now be “guilty until proven innocent.” That is, recent rulings have allowed the police to “cast the investigative net widely in order to capture persons who, once detected, are indisputably engaged in unlawful and perhaps dangerous conduct,” according to Richard Re in this blog post. Some may agree with this, other may disagree. And I believe this is terribly frightening, because in the event that the Supreme Court does rule that the police officer was in the right, police departments may try to strategically misinform their officers of the law in order to catch more criminals without probable cause, as explained by this post by Luke S. Rioux. Ultimately, it will be the Supreme Court’s decision whether this is correct.

I believe the dissenters of the North Carolina Supreme Court said it best:

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.

*UPDATE*

This Slate article summarizes the trend of infringement of fourth amendment rights, particularly the exclusionary principle, due to the good-faith exception

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3 thoughts on “A Broken Brake Light, 54.2 Grams of Cocaine, and a Mistaken Police Officer: Heien v. North Carolina

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