Does a traffic stop premised upon a mistake of law violate the Fourth Amendment?
A police officer stopped Mr. Heien because he only had one brake light working. The police subsequently found cocaine in Mr. Heien's luggage pursuant to a consent search. Mr. Heien eventually pled guilty to attempted trafficking of cocaine, but preserved his right to appeal his conviction.
On appeal, Mr. Heien challenged the traffic stop, arguing that North Carolina law only requires one working "stop lamp." The courts conceded that North Carolina law only required one working "stop lamp," but disagreed about whether the officer's mistaken belief that a defective or burned out brake light constituted a violation of North Carolina law and, therefore, provided a reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop.
Mr. Heien lost this argument in the lower court, won in the N.C. Court of of Appeals, lost in the N.C. Supreme Court, and eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
III. Held (8 to 1, Sotomayor, J. dissenting)
Because the officer's mistake of law was "reasonable," he did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court relied on several points to justify this position, but perhaps the key point was the fact that the appellate courts in North Carolina had never decided whether having just one burned out brake light was a violation of law. Heien, 13-604, Slip Op. at 10. Therefore, the Court held, the officer's mistaken belief was not unreasonable because it did not contravene clearly established law in North Carolina. In other words, the officer could have reasonably believed that it was a violation of law to operate a car with a burned out headlight.
In Heien, the Supreme Court avoided a bright-line rule that searches or seizures based on a mistake of law can never be reasonable. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor argues that such a bright-line rule would make better law and public policy:
"To my mind, the more administrable approach—and the one more consistent with our precedents and principles—would be to hold that an officer’s mistake of law, no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the FourthAmendment."
Heien, 574 U.S. ___ (2014), Slip Op., Sotomayor, J., dissenting at 10.
While the majority opinion stresses that this holding will not encourage law enforcement to be sloppy or foster ignorance of the law because, in the end, law enforcement's actions must be reasonable; the trouble with this decision, as I see it, is that there are far too many laws that one might "reasonably," albeit incorrectly, believe prohibit certain acts. There is no shortage of such examples in Michigan law.
One such example in Michigan--swerving within one's lane of travel--is commonly cited as a basis for a traffic stop. Yet, Michigan’s Motor Vehicle Code does not explicitly prohibit swerving within one's lane. Michigan Compiled Laws § 257.642 sets forth the rules regarding proper and improper lane usage and provides, in pertinent part:
"When a roadway has been divided into 2 or more clearly marked lanes for traffic the following rules in addition to all others consistent with this act shall apply:
(a) A vehicle shall be driven as nearly as practicable entirely within a single lane and shall not be moved from the lane until the driver has first ascertained that the movement can be made with safety…"
M.C.L. § 257.642(1)(a). Thus, the statute does not even prohibit traveling out of a lane of traffic let alone within his or her own lane, so long as the driver stays within the lane “as nearly as practicable” or determines that traveling out of the lane “can be made with safety.” Id. Yet, it is easy to imagine how a court might uphold a traffic stop, citing Heien for support, for swerving within one's own lane, if the officer simply avers that he or she thought it was illegal to do so.
With so many vague and poorly drafted laws on the books, the potential for unwarranted searches and seizures seems high and, as Justice Sotomayor observed:
"...there is nothing in our case law requiring us tohold that a reasonable mistake of law can justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, and quite a bit suggesting just the opposite. I also see nothing to be gained from such a holding, and much to be lost. "
Heier, 574 U.S. ___, Sotomayor, J., dissenting, Slip. Op. at 7 (emphasis added). I tend to agree.
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