The United States Supreme Court has ruled 8-1 that a police officer can stop a vehicle based upon a mistaken understanding of the law without violating the federal Constitution. Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604.
An officer in North Carolina stopped a vehicle because of a broken brake light. State law requires vehicles to have only a single functioning stop lamp, which the car in question had. The stop was therefore based upon the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law. The officer began to issue a warning ticket for the broken brake light, but became suspicious of the movements of the vehicle’s occupants. The owner consented to search of the car, the officer discovered cocaine, and the owner was charged with trafficking.
At oral argument, Appellant’s lawyer argued that “[t]he government should be presumed to know the laws.” He argued further that “[i]t would undercut public confidence in law enforcement and the common law rule upon which the criminal law is built to say the government doesn’t have to be presumed to know the law when it acted.”
The State’s attorney responded by arguing that the officers should have wide latitude, even in situations where they may have acted erroneously. Latching onto the idea of reasonableness that serves as a basis for much of our Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, counsel asserted that “[t]he Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, but it does not require that police officers be perfect … Because the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, all that is required is that a police officer have a reasonable view of the facts and apply those facts to a reasonable understanding of the law.”
Echoing the State’s position, the Supreme Court found that there was no Fourth Amendment violation because the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law that served as the basis for the stop was reasonable. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts observed that searches and seizures based upon an officer’s reasonable misunderstanding of the facts have long been permissible, and that the same reasoning applies to an officer’s reasonable but mistaken interpretations of the law.
Justices Kagan and Ginsburg concurred in a separate opinion, which emphasizes that the Court’s ruling applies only to objectively reasonable mistakes of law. Interestingly, the lone dissenter was Justice Sotomayor who, in line with Appellant’s counsel noted, among other things, that the Court’s ruling will almost certainly undercut public trust and confidence in the law and law enforcement officers. (I don’t know whether or to what extent Justice Sotomayor’s background played into her view of the case, but I believe she is the only sitting Justice with any criminal trial experience.)
The Court’s ruling is problematic for many reasons. The Court’s opinion observes that as a general matter, ignorance of the law is no excuse. Because of this decision, State representatives can be ignorant of the law when they, for example, effect vehicle stops and engage in other similarly intrusive activities. State representatives should not be permitted to intrude into the lives of citizens based upon a mistaken understanding of the basis for the intrusion. Further, the State formulates, debates, writes, and enacts our laws. Statutes and regulations are discussed and documented extensively prior to enactment, and the process is recorded extensively. Given the fact that the State controls the process from beginning to end – coupled with the fact that police officers are required to have extensive training before being sent out into the field – it just seems wrong to not hold the State to a higher standard. Finally, and as a more technical matter, suppression motions raising similar issues just became more complicated, since the motion judge will not ahve to rule on what constitutes an objectively reasonable mistake of law.