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US Supreme Court to Hear North Carolina Case of Mistaken Traffic Stop

A DWI typically starts with a traffic stop.  To lawfully make a traffic stop, an officer must have reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.  In a DWI case, this includes any traffic violation and can range from speeding, to driving erratically, to having a burned out headlight.   If you can show that the officer did not have reasonable suspicion to stop your vehicle, then you might be able to keep any evidence obtained during the arrest from being admitted at trial.  We generally think that a challenge to a traffic stop might involve an issue like racial or ethnic profiling.  But what happens when the officer thinks he has reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle, subsequently arrests the driver for impaired driving, but was mistaken as to the law when he initially stopped the vehicle?  The US Supreme Court will soon tell us.

On Monday, the US Supreme Court said it would hear an appeal from the case of Heien v. North Carolina.  In that case, a man was pulled over for having a missing brake light and the officers eventually found cocaine in the car.  The defendant argued that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because the law required only one functioning brake light and so the officer was mistaken in stopping his car.

The trial court denied the defendant’s motion to suppress the evidence of cocaine found in the vehicle after the traffic stop.  The defendant appealed, arguing that the officer’s initial stop was not constitutional.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals held in favor of the defendant and ruled that the stop was not permitted since North Carolina law required only one working brake light.  It cited other North Carolina cases which stated that

A law enforcement officer may stop and briefly detain a vehicle and its occupants if the officer has reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity may be afoot.  However, an officer’s determination regarding potential criminal activity must be objectively reasonable, and an officer's mistaken belief that a defendant has committed a traffic violation is not an objectively reasonable justification for a traffic stop.  A passenger in a vehicle which is stopped by a law enforcement officer is seized within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, and may accordingly challenge the constitutionality of the initial stop.

The two other cases on which the Court of Appeals relied were 1) a case in which a vehicle was stopped after the officer ran the tags and mistakenly determined that the owner’s license was expired and 2) a case in which a vehicle was stopped when the officer thought the speed limit was 20 miles per hour and it was actually 30 miles per hour.

In contrast, the relevant law at issue in Heien v. North Carolina was not quite as clear.  In fact, to determine that having only one functioning brake light was not a violation of North Carolina law, the Court of Appeals conducted a lengthy analysis interpreting the relevant statutes.

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals decision, holding that an officer’s reasonable mistake of the law did not violate the Fourth Amendment.  In so doing, the North Carolina Supreme Court recognized as a decided issue that “an officer’s subjective mistake of law will not cause the traffic stop to be unreasonable when the totality of the circumstances indicates that there is reasonable suspicion that the person stopped is violating some other, actual law.”  But it questioned whether an officer’s subjective mistake of the law would cause a traffic stop to be unreasonable when the totality of the circumstances do not indicate that there is a reasonable suspicion that the person stopped is violating another law.

The North Carolina Supreme Court discussed that other states are split on this issue.  Some courts have held that no matter how reasonable a mistake of the law might be, that mistake cannot provide reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop.  However, the North Carolina Supreme Court preferred the reasoning of the courts which held that a reasonable mistake of the law in making a traffic stop does not violate Fourth Amendment primarily because the “primary command” of the Fourth Amendment is that officers act reasonably.  The court goes on to state that

An officer may make a mistake, including a mistake of law, yet still act reasonably under the circumstances. As stated above, when an officer acts reasonably under the circumstances, he is not violating the Fourth Amendment. So long as the officer’s mistake of law is objectively reasonable, then, the Fourth Amendment would seem not to be violated. Accordingly, 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.

It will be interesting to see where the US Supreme Court comes out on this issue.  Unfortunately, we will have to wait since the case will not be heard until the Supreme Court's next term which begins in the fall.

If you have been arrested for DWI, call an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC right away (704) 714-1450.

 

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