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Supreme Court to Hear Arguments in Heien v. North Carolina on Monday

If you’ve checked the weather report, you know that fall is in the air this weekend. And with fall comes the start of a new term of the United States Supreme Court. On Monday, the Supreme Court will begin its new term by hearing arguments in the case Heien v. North Carolina, which I discussed last spring when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

To briefly review the facts of the case, the defendant was driving a car with only one working brake light. The officer stopped the defendant because the officer believed that driving a car with only one working brake light was a violation of North Carolina statute. During the course of the traffic stop, 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.

As a brief aside, the North Carolina statute is written this way because many years ago it was common for cars to be made with only one brake light, which was called a “stop lamp” because it often had the word “stop” written across it. As a result, many states have different requirements for antique cars versus modern cars. However, North Carolina’s G.S. 20-129(g) requires that all vehicles manufactured after 1955 be equipped with “a stop lamp.” The North Carolina Court of Appeals interpreted this in Heien to mean that the defendant driving a car with only one working brake light did not violate this section of North Carolina statute. Therefore, the court of appeals concluded that the stop was unreasonable.

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals and held that the officer’s “mistake of law [was] objectively reasonable” which did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court went on to state that “requiring an officer to be more than reasonable, mandating that he be perfect, would impose a greater burden than that required under the Fourth Amendment.”

The defendant’s petition for certiorari to the US Supreme Court noted that states are split on whether a reasonable mistake of the law can provide reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop. Some states have held that no matter how reasonable the mistake of law might be it cannot provide reasonable suspicion. Other courts, like the North Carolina Supreme Court, have held that if the mistake of law is objectively reasonable, then a stop based on the mistake does not violate the Fourth Amendment. Note that it has already been decided that a mistake of fact can provide reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop.

It is interesting to note that a mistake of law is not an excuse for a regular citizen who has violated a law. So a person who is driving on a highway and going above the speed limit cannot use as a defense that he thought the speed limit was higher than it actually was. Or, more relevantly, a person driving with only one working brake light cannot use as a defense that he thought the law required only one working brake light, rather than two. Heien argues that “ignorance of the law is not an excuse” in his brief.

The State, on the other hand, argues that just like a reasonable mistake of fact can provide reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop, so should a reasonable mistake of law. The standard should require not that officers always be correct, but that they always be reasonable.

What are the potential outcomes from the Supreme Court? The Supreme Court could decide that the stop was lawful and the evidence is admissible or that the stop was unlawful and the evidence is inadmissible. If the stop is unlawful, the exclusionary rule means that the evidence gathered cannot be admitted because it was gathered in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

However, the “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule can allow evidence obtained in an illegal stop to be admissible if the officers had a reasonable, good faith belief that they were acting in accordance with the law. For example, if officers searched a house under a search warrant that was later found to be legally defective, the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule might apply.

Although the exclusionary rule under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution has a good faith exception, the exclusionary rule under the Fourth Amendment of the North Carolina Constitution does not have such an exception. This is because a state constitution may afford citizens greater protections than those afforded under the US Constitution. The North Carolina Supreme Court held in State v. Carter (1988) that the good faith exception that the US Supreme Court established under the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment does not exist under the state constitution. The US Supreme Court has reasoned that the benefit of the exclusionary rule is deterring officers from violating the Fourth Amendment. An officer who reasonably and in good faith believes that he his not violating the Fourth Amendment cannot be deterred by the exclusionary rule. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court found other rationales to also be important and stated that “we regard the crucial matter of the integrity of the judiciary and the maintenance of an effective institutional deterrence to police violation of the constitutional law of search and seizure to be the paramount considerations.”

In 2011, the North Carolina legislature enacted a statutory good faith exception to the exclusionary rule, but for this to become effective, the North Carolina Supreme Court must overrule State v. Carter, which it has not yet done. This is all a long way of saying that the US Supreme Court in Heien does not have the option of declaring the stop lawful but allowing the evidence to be admitted under the good faith exception because this is not currently an option under North Carolina law.

It will be interesting to see what comes up during oral arguments on Monday. Stay tuned.

If you have been subjected to an unlawful traffic stop and subsequently charged with DWI, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.

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