On December 15, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Heien v. North Carolina, held that a reasonable mistake of law can support reasonable suspicion to uphold a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  In so ruling, the Court upended the majority of lower courts which had considered the issue.

            Defense counsel’s task, in the wake of Heien, will be to keep “reasonable” mistakes of law narrow and rare.

            Facts: Believing that a driver looked “stiff and nervous,” a police officer followed the car, and noticed that when the car eventually braked, only one of the two rear brake lights came on.  The officer stopped the car for a brake light violation.

            Heien, who owned the car but was a passenger at the time, was lying down in the back seat.  During the traffic stop, the officer became suspicious when Heien remained lying down, the driver appeared nervous, and Heien and the driver gave inconsistent answers about their destination.  Heien ultimately consented to search of the car, where cocaine was found.

            Heien moved to suppress the evidence on grounds that the initial stop was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment because driving with only one working brake light was not a violation of state law.   State statute provided that a car must be equipped with “a stop lamp,” but also that “all originally equipped rear lamps” be functional.

            The North Carolina Court of Appeals held that the stop was unreasonable because state statute required only “a” singular working stop lamp.  But the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed.  It assumed that the faulty brake light did not violate the state statute, but held that given that the statute could be read differently, the officer’s mistaken understanding of the statute was reasonable and the stop valid.

            Holding:  The U.S. Supreme Court held that the officer’s “reasonable” mistake of law provided reasonable suspicion to support the traffic stop. 

            Reiterating that “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness,” the Court noted that it had previously held that searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact can be reasonable.   For example, a warrantless search of a home is reasonable where officers obtain the consent of someone who reasonably appears to be, but is not in fact, a resident.  A “reasonable” mistake of law is no different, the Court held.

            At the same time, the Court placed important limitations on its ruling.  The Fourth Amendment allows only “objectively reasonable” mistakes.   The “subjective understanding of the particular officer” is not considered.

            Additionally, the Court stated that “the inquiry is not as forgiving as the one employed in the distinct context of deciding whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity for constitutional or statutory violations.”  “[A]n officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through sloppy study of the law he is duty bound to enforce,” the Court said.

            Turning to the law at issue, the Court held that given the ambiguity in how the statute could be read to require only “a” stop lamp, or require that “all originally equipped rear lamps” be operational, the officer’s mistake in interpreting the statute was “reasonable.”  The Court also noted that the stop lamp provision “had never been previously construed by North Carolina’s appellate courts.”

            Implications for defense counsel:  Defense counsel can limit Heien’s impact by pointing out the express limitations of the majority’s opinion, which were further amplified by Justice Kagan’s concurrence. 

            First, “reasonable” mistakes can only arise where a law is truly ambiguous.   If the words of a statute are plain, clear or easy to interpret, or if an appellate court has previously interpreted the statute to give it a certain meaning, any mistake as to its meaning cannot be “reasonable.”

            Second, because the test is objective, police cannot use ignorance of the law or inadequate training as excuses to justify mistakes.  “[A]n officer’s reliance on ‘an incorrect memo or training program from the police department’ makes no difference”, Justice Kagan noted.

            Lastly, Justice Sotomayor’s dissent suggests a further limitation on the majority’s ruling comes from North Carolina’s concession that it is not claiming “that an officer’s mistaken understanding of the Fourth Amendment itself can support a seizure if that understanding was reasonable.” 

            Knowing and using these limitations should help to keep “reasonable” mistakes of law narrow and rare.