Perhaps this case is only of interest to me because it’s similar to a hypothetical case I worked on as part of a moot court team during law school. Be that as it may, I discovered the case of Heien v. North Carolina while randomly skimming the list of pending cert petitions that SCOTUSblog maintains (yes, I do that every now and then). The question the Supreme Court will decide (assuming it decides to hear the case in the first place) is “Whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop.”
This is a Fourth Amendment case and the petitioner, Nicholas Heien, is arguing that the search of his vehicle that revealed a bag of cocaine was unconstitutional. Because the search was unconstitutional, the evidence revealed by the search should have been suppressed. Obviously, without the drugs as evidence, the charge of trafficking in cocaine would be dropped. That only leaves the question of what it was that Officer Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department did that arguably violated the Fourth Amendment.
Heien actually consented to the search in this case, but whether his consent was valid isn’t an issue in the Supreme Court (at least not yet). Obviously, the police can’t just pull you over and start asking questions because they feel like it (at least we all know they’re not supposed to do that). They have to have a reasonable suspicion that you have violated the traffic code. In this case, the right brake light on Heien’s car was not functioning. Unfortunately for Officer Matt, North Carolina law merely requires that a vehicle have “a stop lamp”; it does not require two stop lamps (i.e., brake lights). Therefore, the supposed offense for which friendly Officer Matt pulled over Heien wasn’t actually an offense at all. It was on that basis that Heien moved to suppress the evidence.
Heine lost the motion to suppress and pled guilty to the drug charges, reserving his right to appeal the motion to suppress. The North Carolina Court of Appeals saw it Heien’s way and held that when an officer makes a mistake about what the law actually requires, that mistake cannot be an “objectively reasonable justification for a traffic stop.” The Supreme Court of North Carolina disagreed and reversed, holding by a vote of 4-3 that as long as the mistake the officer makes is a reasonable one, the traffic stop does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Officer Matt was reasonable, held the majority, in thinking that the law requires two functioning brake lights. They ordered the case remanded to consider whether the consent given by Heien was valid; he lost on that argument in the Court of Appeals and then again at the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Now the United States Supreme Court will have to resolve a split among the federal Courts of Appeal and many state courts as to what effect, if any, a law enforcement officer’s mistake of law has on subsequent searches. According to the petition, ten courts have held that a mistake of law effectively negates reasonable suspicion while five have upheld searches after mistakes of law that they found to be reasonable.
Aside from the weight of the courts on his side, a passage from another Supreme Court case, Whren v. United States, also seems to be in Heien’s favor. Although in that case the defendants lost, the Court made clear that “[s]ubjective intentions play no role in ordinary, probable-cause Fourth Amendment analysis.” According to the petitioner:
The logic of Whren is inherently two-sided: if an officer’s subjective motive or belief cannot invalidate an objectively justified traffic stop, then it cannot save an objectively unjustified one. In other words, Whren grants officers “broad leeway to conduct searches and seizures regardless of whether their subjective intent corresponds to the legal justification for their actions. But the flip side of that leeway is that the legal justification must be objectively grounded.”
That seems to me to be a pretty compelling argument, drawing on the Supreme Court’s own jurisprudence. Naturally, the state of North Carolina doesn’t agree and has opposed the petition.
I’m no seasoned Court observer, but I’m going to guess that the Supreme Court will take this case. I think the petitioner has the better argument, but having had to brief and prepare for arguing the other side of this question, I know that it’s an issue that a lot of courts consider to be a close call. Because it’s an issue that’s perceived as a close call, but with broad implications for criminal justice, that would seem to make it an issue that the Supreme Court would feel compelled to take up.