Oral Argument Preview: Police Mistakes of Law and Traffic Stops in Heien v. North Carolina By: Justin Clark

Oral Argument Preview: Police Mistakes of Law and Traffic Stops in Heien v. North Carolina

By: Justin Clark



Police officers in the line of duty often have to make split-second decisions based on incomplete information.  Accordingly, the Supreme Court has long acknowledged that the Fourth Amendment gives some considerable room for police mistakes of fact as long as they are reasonable under the circumstances.[1]  In Heien v. North Carolina, the Court granted certiorari to hear a case from the Supreme Court of North Carolina to decide whether a police officer can justify a traffic stop based on the officer’s mistake of law.[2]  The Supreme Court of North Carolina sided with a minority of jurisdictions by holding that a police officer may justify a traffic stop based on a mistake of law, so long as that mistake is objectively reasonable.[3]  However, an overwhelming majority of courts in answering this question have applied a strict per se rule—a police officer can never justify a traffic stop based solely on a mistake of law.[4]  Under an alternative approach, a court will find that where a police officer conducts a traffic stop based on his or her mistake of law, the stop is presumptively invalid.[5] In this respect, this rule is like the majority rule, but it then allows the police officer can rebut this presumption by offering facts that would form an independent legal basis for the stop.[6]

This preview discusses the background facts of Heien.  Second, it discusses the reasoning given by the majority opinion of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.  Third, it offers two criticisms against the minority’s objectively-reasonable rule.  Finally, it examines the possible outcomes the Supreme Court might take in this case.

Background Facts of Heien

The petitioner was a passenger his car being driven by another person down the interstate early one morning.[7]  A police officer was observing traffic from a position on the side of the road.[8]  He decided to follow the petitioner’s car because the driver was looking “stiff and nervous.”[9] When the car slowed down the right brake light of the car did not illuminate.[10]   The officer activated his blue lights and pulled the car over.[11]  He told the driver that the only reason for the stop was for having a “non-functioning brake light.”[12]  However, North Carolina law only requires that a car have “a stop lamp.”[13]  The officer based the stop in his mistaken belief that the law required that cars need to have two working brake lights.[14]  Nonetheless, during traffic stop the officer requested to search the petitioner’s car.[15]   The petitioner consented to the search, which uncovered a sandwich bag containing around two ounces of cocaine.[16]  The petitioner later pled guilty to two counts of attempted cocaine trafficking.[17]  The Supreme Court of North Carolina upheld the traffic stop because the officer’s mistake of law was objectively reasonable under the circumstances.[18]

Lower Court’s Reasoning

The court offered three major justifications for adopting a rule that permits objectively reasonable mistakes of law.  First, allowing objectively reasonable mistakes of law complies with the Fourth Amendment command that the police must only act reasonably, not perfectly.[19]  It reasoned that a rule invalidating every police mistake of law would cause timidity among police officers to stop cars for violating traffic laws out of the “fear that a possible subsequent prosecution for the violation could be imperiled.”[20]  The court further stated that “most motorists would actually prefer to learn that a safety device on their vehicle is not functioning properly.”[21] Second, the court determined that rejecting a per se rule was consistent with the reasonable suspicion standard, which requires that courts look at the totality of the circumstances.[22]  Third, the court appealed to judicial efficiency by treating all police mistakes the same because the difference between mistakes of fact and law will not always be readily apparent.[23]

Criticisms of the Minority Rule

First, the minority rule allows for virtually unlimited police discretion because it fails to provide a cognizable standard to govern police contact with drivers on the road.  The governing standard for reasonable suspicion analysis in the traffic-stop context should be rooted in a violation the law.[24]  The basis for the stop in Heien was not based on a violation of the law.[25]  The Court has granted police officers a lot of leeway in forming a reasonable suspicion that “criminal activity may be afoot.”[26]  Furthermore, an officer can pull someone over for engaging in a series of innocent acts, if those acts, taken together, give rise to suspicious conduct.  [27]  Completely irreprehensible activity, like the broken brake light in Heien, should never give rise to a traffic stop.[28]

Second, the minority rule gives an unfair advantage to police because it holds drivers to a higher standard.  A driver who is pulled over for a traffic violation cannot assert a mistake of law as a defense.[29]  But if the Court adopts the reasoning of the Supreme Court of North Carolina, police officers will be able to raise a mistake of law excuse to justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.[30]  Proponents in favor of a per se rule against police mistakes of law have argued that the law cannot hold the public to a higher standard than those who are entrusted with enforcing it.[31]

In United States v. Chanthasouxat, the Eleventh Circuit adopted rationales from three areas outside of the realm of the Fourth Amendment.[32]   First, it reasoned that a court should never interpret a vague or ambiguous statute against a defendant.[33]  This principle is usually applied to cases involving statutory interpretation of criminal codes, although the relevant provisions in this context are in the motor vehicle code.  Second, allowing the police to “sweep behavior into the statute” that the legislature did not intend runs against the separation of powers doctrine.[34]  Third, allowing the police room to interpret the laws violates the due process because it fails to give reasonable notice to many drivers who are subject to being pulled over for something that is not against the law.[35]

Possible Outcomes in Heien v. North Carolina

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on this case October 6, 2014.[36]  The Court should consider adopting a rule that (at the very least) presumes that a mistake of law cannot form the basis for a traffic stop.   It could adopt the majority rule that does not allow stops based on mistakes of law, but this rule is arguably too strict on police officers.[37]  The Court should look to the alternative approach to give the police the chance to justify the stop on some independent grounds, despite his or her mistake of law.[38] If the Court applies the alternative rule in Heien, the stop will not be valid because it is unlikely that the officer will be able to provide another independent reason why he stopped the car, other than the fact that car’s brake light was out.  Whatever the outcome, this case is definitely one to keep an eye on.

[1] See, e.g., Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 185 (1990) (recognizing that the requirement for police acting under the Fourth Amendment “is not that they always be correct, but that they always be reasonable”).  See also Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 176 (1949) (noting that “[b]ecause many situations which confront officers in the course of executing their duties are more or less ambiguous, room must be allowed for some mistakes on their part”).

[2] See  Order Granting Petition for Certiorari to Supreme Court of North Carolina, 2014 U.S. LEXIS 2577 (No. 13-604).

[3] State v. Heien, 737 S.E.2d 351, 356 (N.C. 2012); see also United States v. Martin, 411 F.3d 998 (8th Cir. 2005).

[4] United States v. Miller, 146 F.3d 274, 279 (5th Cir. 1998).

[5] United States v. Delfin-Colina, 464 F.3d 392, 399 (3rd Cir. 2006).

[6] Id. at 399-400.

[7] Heien, 737 S.E.2d 351, 352.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13]Id.   N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-129(g) (2012) (emphasis added)

[14] Heien, 737 S.E.2d 351, 357.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id. at 353.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 356.

[20] Id. at 357

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 358.

[24] Brief for NACDL as Amici Curiae Supporting Petitioner, Heien v. North Carolina, 2014 LEXIS 2577 (No. 13-604) at 4.

[25] State v. Heien, 737 S.E.2d 351, 357 (N.C. 2012).

[26] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1, 30 (1968).

[27] Id. at 22.

[28] Brief for NACDL, supra note 24, at 4.  See also Navarette v. California, 2014 U.S. LEXIS 2930 (Scalia, J., dissenting)

[29] Id.

[30] Heien, 737 S.E.2d 351 (N.C. 2012).

[31] Brief for Professors Charles E. MacLean and Adam Lamparello as Amici Curiae Supporting Petitioner, Heien v. North Carolina, 2014 LEXIS 2577 (No. 13-604) at 16.

[32] 342 F.3d. at 1278 (2003).

[33] Id. at 1278.

[34] Id.

[35] Id. at 1278-79.

[36] Heien v. North Carolina, SCOTUSblog, (http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/heien-v-north-carolina/) (last visited Sept. 28, 2014).

[37] See generally, Daniel N. Hass, Student Comment, Must Officers be Perfect?: Mistakes of Law and Mistakes of Fact During Traffic Stops, 62 DePaul L. Rev. 1035 (2013).

[38] Brief for MacLean and Lamparello, supra note 31, at 17-18 (arguing for the application of the alternative rule).


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