8-1 in Heien v. North Carolina

The Supreme Court recently came to a decision in Heien v. North Carolina, the October 2014 case about a police officer’s mistake of law. To recap, a police officer, Matt Darisse, stopped a car with only one functioning brake light. After he noticed some suspicion in the driver’s behavior, he asked to search the car. The driver, Nicholas Heien, agreed, and Darisse found cocaine. Heien was charged for drug trafficking. The only problem was that driving a car with only one functioning brake light (or “stop lamp” in the law – just showing how dated this law is) is completely legal in North Carolina so the police officer did not have a warrant to stop the car. So, should the cocaine found be excluded because of the exclusionary rule?

The Court didn’t think so. This past Monday, December 15, the Supreme Court ruled, 8-1, that police officers can sometimes conduct a search of a stopped car, even if the stopping of that car was based on a mistake of law. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion. The decision was narrow and justified a few searches and seizures if the police officer made a mistake. But all in all, the decision was limited to the North Carolina case. The key was that the mistake by the police officer was “reasonable.”

Since the law was worded strangely and confusingly, according to Roberts, Darisse’s mistake was understandable and reasonable. In fact, Roberts said, most people, including North Carolinians, would be surprised to find out that North Carolina doesn’t require two rear brake lights. And the law mentioned requiring all functional rear lamps (plural).

As an aside, the concept of “reasonableness” is very ambiguous. This much is clear. The Court has a long history of defining what is reasonable has been almost entirely contextual; that is, it is based on a legacy of cases where the term is defined solely in the context of that case. And given the inherent ambiguity of the term, that’s really the only way the Court can objectively define the term. The Court has, by the way, allowed for a stop by police officers if that stop is based on a mistake of fact. The Court found that there was little to no functional difference in how they should treat a mistake of fact vs. a mistake of law.

Roberts noted that Heien wasn’t appealing a brake light ticket, he is appealing a cocaine trafficking conviction. In that case, the cocaine case, there was no mistake of law. The singular brake light may have made the police officer suspicious of the driver, since in any other state the driver would be breaking the law. That mistake is reasonable.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a concurring opinion, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined. The concurrence noted that the decision is particularly narrow and that it only applies to a very small number of “exceedingly rare” cases in which the law is unclear.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the sole dissenter. Her dissent stated that police officers should never be allowed to search and seize under the Fourth Amendment if they make a mistake. Sotomayor warned that allowing mistakes by police officers will further erode trust between police officers and community members. She writes that stops can be “annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating.” She also warned that the decision would lead to more confusion about what is legal and what is not because police departments and courts now don’t have as much as an incentive to define what is legal and what isn’t because mistakes are allowed.

But more about that first part of Sotomayor’s dissent. Darisse initially started to follow Heien because he noticed the driver was particularly stiff and nervous, with his hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel. Wait, what? That’s completely legal. In fact, that’s more legal and more correct than the way most people drive, myself included. Darisse followed the car because he thought that legal behavior was suspicious, then noticed the broken brake light, and pulled over the car. That initial suspicion shouldn’t be allowed. But unfortunately neither Heien’s lawyers nor Sotomayor discussed this explicitly.

What does this decision mean for police power? It certainly gives more power to police, but not that much. After all, the decision was narrow enough to be limited to traffic violations and most traffic laws are clearer than North Carolina’s.

One more thing – Heien’s case rested on the claim that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” applies to both citizens and police officers. The decision does not excuse ignorance of the law by police officers. The Court has previously ruled that a reasonable ignorance of the law is not allowed.

For more reading:

The decision is here.

Rory Little explains the decision in depth at SCOTUS Blog on December 15, 2014.

German Lopez explains the decision at Vox on December 15, 2014.

Nina Totenberg covers the decision at NPR on December 15, 2014.

Orin Kerr, Fred C. Stevenson Research Professor at The George Washington University School of Law, asks and answers two questions about the broader implications of the case at the Washington Post on December 15, 2014.

Noah Feldman, Professor of Constitutional and International Law at Harvard Law School, criticizes the decision’s lack of symmetry in ignorance of law between citizens and police officers at Bloomberg View on December 15, 2014.

Kent Scheidegger discusses the good faith exception and the decision at Crime & Consequences on December 15, 2014.

Robert VerBruggen reports on two key details of the decision at The Mark-Up at Real Clear Policy on December 16, 2014.

Dahlia Lithwick reports on the underlying racial tensions in the case at Slate on December 16, 2014.

Leslie Shoebotham, Victor H. Schiro Distinguished Professor of Law at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, describes the decision’s effects on future 4th Amendment cases at Hamilton and Griffin on Rights on December 16, 2014.

The Economist notes criticizes the ambiguity of the law on its Democracy in America blog on December 16, 2014.

Richard Re, Assistant Professor of Law at UCLA, discusses the possible limiting effects on the concurring decision at his blog, Re’s Judicata on December 16, 2014.

Garrett Epps criticizes the decision at The Atlantic on December 17, 2014.

Lisa Soronen says the decision is “a win, but not a free pass” at International Municipal Lawyers Association’s Appellate Practice Blog on December 21, 2014.

Kenneth Jost criticizes the decision on his blog, Jost for Justice, on December 21, 2014.


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