Federal Criminal Defense Attorney Hope Lefeber Discusses Supreme Court Case Holding That Police Officer's Mistaken Understanding of the Law Is Irrelevant in Traffic Stop

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Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___ (2014), is a decision by the United States Supreme Court, ruling that a search following a traffic stop, even though based upon a police officer's mistaken understanding of the law, is constitutional under the Fourth Amendment.

Hope Lefeber

This is an extraordinary intrusion into our Fourth Amendment rights, as a police officer can now justify a stop and search in any case and it no longer matters whether the person stopped violated any law, let alone a traffic violation.

Last week, the US Supreme Court delivered another blow to 4th Amendment civil liberties. In Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. __ (2014), the Court, for the first time, allowed the police to benefit from not knowing the law. Federal criminal defense attorney Hope Lefeber explains the ruling and discusses its implications.

According to court documents, Heien’s car was stopped after a North Carolina patrol car noticed the car only had one working brake light. Believing two working brake lights were required, the officer pulled the car over and ultimately discovered cocaine inside. Petitioner was charged with attempted trafficking in North Carolina state court. Petitioner moved to suppress the search because state law only required vehicles to have one working brake-light. He alleged, therefore, that the officer stopped him for conduct that was fully legal. The trial court denied the motion. (Docket No. 13-604, Nicholas Brady Heien, Petitioner v. North Carolina). Heien then pleaded guilty to two counts of trafficking, while reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.

On appeal the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed. After careful analysis of the North Carolina statute governing brake lights, the Court of Appeals concluded the stop violated the Fourth Amendment, explaining that "an officer's mistaken belief that a defendant has committed a traffic violation is not an objectively reasonable justification for a traffic stop". The Court of Appeals then held that evidence from the search had to be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. The Supreme Court of North Carolina then reversed the Court of Appeals, holding that the officer's mistake of law was objectively reasonable, and, therefore, the search was justified and constitutional.

The United States Supreme Court affirmed. The Court had long accepted that an officer’s mistake of fact would not violate the Fourth Amendment. See Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 183-86 (1990). The Court had little difficulty in extending the same courtesy to an officer’s mistake of law—as long as it was a reasonable mistake. “To 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.” As such, the majority held that a police officer's reasonable mistake of law can indeed provide the individualized suspicion required by the Fourth Amendment to justify a traffic stop based upon that understanding.

Ms. Lefeber explains that this is an extraordinary intrusion into our Fourth Amendment rights, as a police officer can now justify a stop and search in any case and it no longer matters whether the person stopped violated any law, let alone a traffic violation.

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