U.S. Supreme Court decides that a mistake about the law does not invalidate a traffic stop in a Search and Seizure Case: HEIEN v. NORTH CAROLINA
On April 29, 2009, Maynor Javier Vasquez was driving his Ford Escort, his passenger, and the petitioner in this decision, Nicholas Brady Heien laying across the rear seat. Surry County Sheriff ’s Sergeant Matt Darisse, saw Vasquez drive by, and later testified at a suppression hearing that Vasquez appeared “very stiff and nervous.” Based upon that observation, he decided to follow the Ford Escort, and while following, noticed that when the car had to slow down for slower traffic, the right rear break light was out.
At this point, Sergeant Darisse decided to pull the vehicle over. Darisse testified that he explained to Vasquez that as long as his license and registration checked out, he would receive only a warning ticket for the broken brake light. There is no argument that a records check revealed no problems with the documents, and Darisse gave Vasquez the warning ticket. Sergeant Darisse testified that he become suspicious during the course of the stop because Vasquez appeared nervous, Heien was lying down the entire time, and the two gave inconsistent answers about where they were going.
As a result of this lingering suspicion, Sergeant Darisse claims that he asked for, and was given permission to search the car. He testified that the search revealed cocaine inside of a sandwich bag that was in a dufflebag. After the recovery of the narcotics, the officers arrested both men.
On appeal, Heien argued that Sergeant Darisse misinterpreted the North Carolina law regulating the operability of brake lights on motor vehicles, and since the Sergeant misunderstood the law, the stop of the Fort was illegal, and all the contraband should have been suppressed. On federal constitutional grounds, the North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the stop was objectively bad and suppressed the evidence. The State appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court which overturned the Court of Appeals reinstating the conviction, and Mr. Heien appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision that overturned the decision of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and also held that the contraband should not be suppressed.
Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the decision of the Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment protects people from unreasonable search and seizure, therefore, the question is whether or not the officer in this case acted reasonably.
In prior decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that a reasonable, but mistaken belief of the facts surrounding a situation did not require suppression of contraband. For example, if the police stopped an man that matched the description of someone who had just committed a crime, and on this man found contraband, the stop was proper and the contraband would not be suppressed even though the man they stopped was not the person they were looking for. As long as the stop was reasonable based on the objective facts in the officer’s possession at the time, even if they were mistaken, any contraband recovered would not be suppressed.
The Supreme Court extended those prior ruling to situations where a police officer has a reasonable, although mistaken belief that a person violated a law, so as to justify the stop and search of that person. The Court held that because the North Carolina law regarding brake lights was so poorly written and hard to understand, that Sergeant Darisse’s was objectively reasonable because any police officer under the same circumstances would believe that having one brake light out is a violation of the traffic law.
The moral of the story is that if a police officer can come up with an reasonable explanation for why he believed a person violated a local law, even if he is mistaken, a court does not have to suppress any contraband recovered during the subsequent search and seizure. As Justice Sotomayor stated in her dissent “I would hold that determining whether a search or seizure is reasonable requires evaluating an officer’s understanding of the facts against the actual state of the law.”
Further explaining her disagreement with the rest of the Judges on the Court, Justice Sotomayor said, “Departing from this tradition means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down. Traffic stops like those at issue here can be annoying, frightening, and perhaps humiliating. We have nevertheless held that an officer’s subjective motivations do not render a traffic stop unlawful. But we assumed *** that when an officer acts on pretext, at least that pretext would be the violation of an actual law.”
Now, there does not even have to be an actual violation of the law according to the majority decision, only a reasonable explanation as to why the officer was mistaken about his understanding of the law he claims was violated.
Read the original decision here.
HEIEN v. NORTH CAROLINA