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Reasonable Mistake of Law Justifies Traffic Stop

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Heien v. North Carolina, the broken brake light case from North Carolina that we have discussed in our posts a few times. In an 8-1 ruling (only Justice Sotomayor dissented), the Court held that because the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable, there was reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop of the defendant’s car.

First, a brief review of the facts of Heien. The defendant was riding in a car with only one working brake light. The officer saw the defendant’s car drive by, thought his behavior was suspicious, and followed the defendant’s car for a period of time until he observed a pretextual reason to stop the defendant’s car - the one working brake light. The officer believed that driving a car with only one working brake light was a violation of North Carolina statute. The officer let the defendant go with a warning, but before the defendant left, the officer asked for consent to search the defendant’s vehicle. During the search, the officer found cocaine in the defendant’s car. At trial, the defendant argued that the traffic stop was unreasonable because North Carolina statute required only one working brake light. The court of appeals conducted a lengthy analysis of the relevant statute and determined that the statute did require only one working brake light, and therefore the stop was unlawful. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals because it concluded that the stop did not violate the Fourth Amendment since the officer’s “mistake of law [was] objectively reasonable.”

The Court began its analysis by noting that the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. “A traffic stop for a suspected violation of law is a ‘seizure’ of the occupants of the vehicle and therefore must be conducted in accordance with the Fourth Amendment.” To justify a traffic stop, reasonable suspicion - or “‘a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped’ of breaking the law” - is required.

To support its conclusion that a reasonable mistake of law can support a traffic stop, the Court noted that “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’” It went on to state that “[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them ‘fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.’”

Just as the State argued in oral arguments, the Court acknowledged that a reasonable mistake of fact can support a search or seizure, but “[t]he limit is that ‘the mistakes must be those of reasonable men.’” The Court went on to reason:

But reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer’s understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law. The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground. Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not what was thought, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law. There is no reason, under the text of the Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why this same result should be acceptable when reached by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but not when reached by way of a similarly reasonable mistake of law.

What is a “reasonable” mistake of the law? The Court explained that “[t]he Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes—whether of fact or of law— must be objectively reasonable. We do not examine the subjective understanding of the particular officer involved.” The rule does not discourage officers from learning the law because “an officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce.”

Although the guidance in the majority opinion as to what a reasonable mistake of the law might be is fairly vague, Justice Kagan provides a clearer, but stricter, rule in her concurring opinion. Justice Kagan believes that “the government cannot defend an officer’s mistaken legal interpretation on the ground that the officer was unaware of or untrained in the law” and that “an officer’s reliance on ‘an incorrect memo or training program from the police department’ makes no difference to the analysis.” Instead of a mere reasonable man standard, Justice Kagan proposes a reasonable judge standard in that “the test is satisfied when the law at issue is ‘so doubtful in construction’ that a reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s view.”

The question of whether the officer’s mistake of law in Heien was reasonable, however, was not difficult for the Court to determine.

Although the North Carolina statute at issue refers to “a stop lamp,” suggesting the need for only a single working brake light, it also provides that “[t]he stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.” N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §20–129(g) . The use of “other” suggests to the everyday reader of English that a “stop lamp” is a type of “rear lamp.” And another subsection of the same provision requires that vehicles “have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order,” §20–129(d), arguably indicating that if a vehicle has multiple “stop lamp[s],” all must be functional.

Although the North Carolina Court of Appeals concluded that the statutes required only one working brake light because “rear lamps” did not include the “stop lamp,” it would have been reasonable to conclude that “rear lamps” did include the “stop lamp.” The Court also emphasized that these statutory provisions had never been construed by the North Carolina appellate courts prior to this case.

The Court concluded that “[i]t was thus objectively reasonable for an officer in [the officer’s] position to think that Heien’s faulty right brake light was a violation of North Carolina law. And because the mistake of law was reasonable, there was reasonable suspicion justifying the stop.”

At oral arguments, there was much discussion about the separation of the rights and the remedies issues under the Fourth Amendment. A person’s Fourth Amendment rights can be violated by an illegal search or seizure but the evidence obtained can still be admitted under the exclusionary rule if the officers had a reasonable, good faith belief that they were acting in accordance with the law. But remember that under the North Carolina constitution, there is no exclusionary rule to the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, for the evidence obtained in Heien to be admissible, the search must be determined to be legal.

In its opinion, the Court makes clear that the question of reasonableness regarding the officer’s mistake of law goes to the rights issue and not the remedies issue, stating

the mistake of law relates to the antecedent question of whether it was reasonable for an officer to suspect that the defendant’s conduct was illegal. If so, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment in the first place. None of the cases Heien or the dissent cites precludes a court from considering a reasonable mistake of law in addressing that question.

What about the defendant’s argument that a mistake of law (no matter how reasonable) is not an excuse for a person who has violated that law? The Court addressed this argument by explaining:

Though this argument has a certain rhetorical appeal, it misconceives the implication of the maxim. The true symmetry is this: Just as an individual generally cannot escape criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law, so too the government cannot impose criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law. If the law required two working brake lights, Heien could not escape a ticket by claiming he reasonably thought he needed only one; if the law required only one, [the officer] could not issue a valid ticket by claiming he reasonably thought drivers needed two. But just because mistakes of law cannot justify either the imposition or the avoidance of criminal liability, it does not follow that they cannot justify an investigatory stop. And Heien is not appealing a brake-light ticket; he is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law.

It will be interesting to watch and see how lower courts apply and interpret the reasonable mistake of law rule.

If you have been subjected to an unlawful traffic stop and subsequently charged with dwi, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman Car Accident & Injury Lawyers (704) 714-1450 to discuss your options.

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