Over Easy: SCOTUS: Officer’s Reasonable Mistake of Law Not a Fourth Amendment Violation
On December 15, SCOTUS issued a ruling that says, “A police officer’s reasonable mistake of law gives rise to reasonable suspicion that justifies a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.” In North Carolina, an officer stopped Nicholas Heien for having one non-working tail light. The officer searched the car, and found cocaine in a duffel bag. Heien was subsequently convicted of trafficking. Since the law in North Carolina is that a driver must have one working tail light, Heien sought to suppress evidence seized in the search, because he was driving within the law. In Heien v. North Carolina, SCOTUS upholds vehicle stops when the officer is ‘reasonably mistaken’ about the law, even if the driver is following the law.
Why did the Supreme Court grant certiorari in this case? They had an agenda. They have been looking for a case with a suitably appropriate set of facts upon which they could base their decision carving out an exception to the reasonable-suspicion rule and the exclusionary rule, which is a judicial remedy that excludes evidence seized in violation of that rule (and others). They wanted the Heien case from NC because it only applies in NC. The federal courts and all other state courts are not bound by it. They accepted review because they wanted to establish that rule for all courts. I believe this new rule that exempts operation of the exclusionary rule for reasonable mistakes by police regarding what is unlawful is absolutely awful. Only time will tell what constitutes reasonable ignorance or stupidity. Nothing good will come of this bizarre decision.
The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has the power of discretionary review, which means they get to choose the cases they are willing to review. With few exceptions, intermediate courts of appeal do not have the power of discretionary review. They have to accept review because litigants in the trial courts (Circuit courts or Superior courts), where all trials take place, have a right to appeal if they are unhappy with the result. Before each term, the nine justices of the SCOTUS meet and decide what new legal rules they want to establish and what existing rules they want to eliminate or change.
Each term, SCOTUS receives thousands of cert petitions, which are applications for discretionary review. They are called petitions (requests) for a writ (order) of certiorari (granting review). They review them for cases containing the issues they want to address. Within that group they look for cases with the best set of facts to support the decision they want to reach. They grant cert in those cases and deny cert in the rest. At least four votes in favor of granting cert are necessary for a petition to be granted. All state supreme courts have the same power but they call the requests for review petitions for discretionary review. A decision by a state supreme court is binding authority on every court within that state. It is non-binding authority on other state courts and the federal courts. A SCOTUS decision interpreting federal law, the Constitution or its amendments, including the Bill of Rights, is binding authority on every court in the land. A decision by a federal circuit court of appeal interpreting federal law, the Constitution or its amendments, including the Bill of Rights, is only binding on courts in that circuit. Procedural History of Heien The following summary was prepared by the official Reporter of Decisions:
Following a suspicious vehicle, Sergeant Matt Darisse noticed that only one of the vehicle’s brake lights was working and pulled the driver over. While issuing a warning ticket for the broken brake light, Darisse became suspicious of the actions of the two occupants and their answers to his questions. Petitioner Nicholas Brady Heien, the car’s owner, gave Darisse consent to search the vehicle. Darisse found cocaine, and Heien was arrested and charged with attempted trafficking. The trial court denied Heien’s motion to suppress the seized evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, concluding that the vehicle’s faulty brake light gave Darisse reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the relevant code provision, which requires that a car be “equipped with a stop lamp,” N. C. Gen.Stat. Ann. §20–129(g), requires only a single lamp—which Heien’s vehicle had—and therefore the justification for the stop was objectively unreasonable. Reversing in turn, the State Supreme Court held that, even assuming no violation of the state law had occurred, Darisse’s mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable, and thus the stop was valid.
Note that this summary is not part of the decision itself. Better to read the opinion itself and cite from it rather than the summary that is not binding on anyone. Some summaries are better than others. Woe unto the law student or lawyer who gets it wrong by relying on the summary.
Photo by dbking under Creative Commons license, flickr.