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Sunday, December 21, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Traffic Stop Based on Mistake of Law

Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___ (2014).

I.  Issue

Does a traffic stop premised upon a mistake of law violate the Fourth Amendment?

II.  Facts

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.

IV.  Analysis

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.


Springstead & Bartish Law, PLLC

Monday, November 17, 2014

New Resource

New resource center on collateral consequences just launched.

Definitely worth checking out.

Also so happy to welcome Gary Springstead as a blogger!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Indiana Conviction for Felony Battery is a Crime of Violence for Career Offender Purposes

The Sixth Circuit just held, in an unpublished decision (U.S. v. Mendez), that a conviction under Indiana's Felony Battery statute is a crime of violence under the career offender provisions of U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a).

The main issue on appeal was whether the defendant's conviction under an Indiana statute, which criminalized battery "result[ing] in bodily injury to….the other person," qualified as "crime of violence" under § 4B1.2(a).  While the outcome may seem obvious at first blush, this case serves as a reminder that the Sixth Circuit will carefully analyze convictions that serve as a predicate for Career Offender or Armed Career Criminal sentencing enhancements, if the issue is preserved and raised on appeal.

In the course of analyzing the issue, the Court restated the current state of the law--that, in order to qualify as a "crime of violence," a conviction must encompass "the use, attempted use or threatened use of physical force."  "Physical force" in the context of crimes of violence, means "violent force--that is force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person." Johnson v. United States, 559 U.S. 133, 140 (2010).  However, not all batteries or offensive touchings are considered "crimes of violence."  Id. at 139.

 In Mr. Mendez' case, the Sixth Circuit held that his conviction for Felony Battery qualified as "crime of violence," finding, through deductive reasoning and an examination of the lesser offenses, that in order to rise to the level of a felony in Indiana, a conviction for Felony Battery necessarily entails the infliction of physical pain or injury.  The Court rejected Mr. Mendez' arguments that any such physical pain or injury must rise to the level of "serious bodily injury" before qualifying as a crime of violence, citing the Supreme Court's rejection of this exact argument in U.S. v Castelman, 695 F.3d 582, 590 (6th Cir. 2012).

Bottom line:  Carefully scrutinize and, where warranted, challenge any predicate convictions related to Career Offender or Armed Career Offender status because the Court of Appeals will carefully consider any well-founded arguments no matter how obvious the issue may seem at first blush.


Gary K. Springstead
Springstead & Bartish Law
Attorney Profile

Monday, November 3, 2014

Fantasizing and Scope of 2422(b)

U.S. v. Hite, No. 13-3066 (D.C. Cir. Oct. 21, 2014).

The Federal Defender for DC filed an amicus brief.

Conviction: 18 U.S.C. 2422(b): attempting to persuade a minor to engage in unlawful sexual activity.

Sentence: 22 years + $500k fine.

Facts: D used Internet and phone to communicate with undercover detective who claimed to be adult male with access to twelve-year-old girl and three-year-old boy for sexual activity.  No actual kids involved at all.   


* Does 2422(b) require direct communication with the minor(s)?  (Issue of first impression for circuit.)

* Were jury instructions erroneous?

* Did dist ct improperly exclude defense expert?

* Did dist ct improperly prevent defense impeachment of detective?


* Seven circuits have considered issue of scope of 2422(b).  DC Cir joins these circuits and concludes that communications with adult intermediary to persuade minor is enough as long as D's interaction with intermediary is aimed at overcoming minor's will in favor of engaging in sexual conduct

* There is no general federal attempt statute.  Statute here expressly proscribes attempts. 

* The "substantial step" required to prove an attempt must strongly corroborate D's intent to engage in conduct to persuade minor by way of the intermediary. 

* Ambiguity insufficient to trigger rule of lenity. 

* Here, the D argued it was all fantasy: Internet hyperbole.  Unfortunately, he did not raise the issue brought in the Federal Defender's amicus brief: activities were mere preparation and insufficient to constitute attempt. 

* Conviction vacated and case remanded for new trial b/c jury instructions too broad

* D's expert (Johns Hopkins psychiatrist) should have been allowed to testify.  He was going to address the difference b/t a desire to actually engage in sexual conduct with a minor and mere fantasy/role playing.  He was also going to discuss diagnosis of D as not suffering from a psychiatric condition associated with a desire to have sexual contact with children.  Finally, he was going to testify regarding relationship b/t CP (D found with CP) and sexual interest in children. 

* D's Rule 16 notice not insufficient here.  Rule 16 does not require D to explain the basis of the proposed opinions' admissibility or the legal basis for their introduction. 

* D's defense was that this activity was all fantasy.  D should have been allowed to present testimony to show he was not interested in actual sex with minors. 

* Expert testimony on Internet fantasy and sexual fantasies involving minors could have helped jury. 

* Dist ct's prevention of cross-examination impeaching detective was not an abuse of discretion (testimony from other cases). 

* Case not extraordinary, so no reassignment to new judge on remand. 

This case is not a Sixth Circuit case, but still very interesting, esp. given that the Federal Defender's Office contributed an amicus brief. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Following Up on Yesterday: Holder Memo on Appeal

I just posted this note to the 6th Cir. blog.  It dovetails nicely with our panel training yesterday.

United States v. Ivory, No. 13-5962 (6th Cir. Mar. 21, 2014) (unpublished), is a fairly unremarkable per curiam opinion (Judges Boggs, Siler, and Gibbons).

But I'm noting it here b/c the defendant relied on the Holder memo to argue for a lower sentence.  The COA rejected the argument.

Crack case.  Defendant was a career offender.  GLs 151 to 188.  D asked for a 60-month sentence (over-represented criminal history, just a street-level dealer).  Dist ct granted downward variance and sentenced D to 130 months of imprisonment. 

COA says that "[g]iven that we afford a within-guidelines sentence a rebuttable presumption of substantive reasonableness, [the defendant's] burden of demonstrating that his below-guidelines sentence 'is unreasonably long is even more demanding.'"   

COA stressed that the Holder memo on charging mand mins and recidivist enhancements is just a policy statement.  Confers no rights.  Plus, D was not subject to a mand min, was already convicted at the time, and not subject to a "recidivist enhancement" (statutory one, as he was a career offender).  Also said that he was not a candidate for the policy b/c of his lengthy criminal history.    

Sentence affirmed. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

Clemency . . . .

Yes, I just used the C word. 

It seems we may be looking at some sentence commutation.  And a group of organizations, including the Defender organization, NACDL, FAMM, and more, have formed Clemency Project 2014

BOP is going to be sending notice to inmates outlining the criteria for which the president is looking and telling inmates how to get assistance from the Clemency Project. 

If YOU would like to take a case, please contact Norman Reimer at

The criteria IN BRIEF(!):
* Drugs (any kind).
* Would sentence be lower if imposed today?
* Long sentence, clean record in custody, not a public-safety threat, and more. . . .

Also, if you have represented someone that you think might be a candidate and want to explore the criteria and/or want to recommend them for review in this process, you can call the office at 616-742-7420 and I can send you more info.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Med MJ Issues

Just posted this one to the Sixth Circuit blog too.

United States v. Duval, Nos. 12-2338/2339 (6th Cir. Feb. 7, 2014) (for publication).

Med MJ issues.

Panel of Judges Cole, Gilman, Donald. 

* Was compliance with Mich Med MJ Act (MMMA) relevant to search-warrant application?  COA said no.
* Did the indictment allege a federal crime even though one of the defendants was a registered "caregiver" under the MMMA and qualified for the "practitioner exception" under 21 U.S.C. 802(21)?  COA said yes.
* COA affirmed district court.

* Defendants said search warrant invalid b/c deputy omitted defendants' status as registered patients and caregivers under Mich law.  Gov said issue waived b/c not raised in dist ct.  COA rejected gov's contention---defense counsel probed issue sufficiently in dist ct, though not quite explicitly. 
* Deputy did not have "clear and uncontroverted evidence" that defendants were complying fully with MMMA at time of search-warrant application.  Actually seemed like the defendants were not complying, given what officer knew.  The deputy did not know another officer had advised the defendants earlier about complying with the MMMA.  So failing to include that info in warrant application could not be deliberate.  Info not imputed here.  No evidence the officers communicated.
* Application for warrant was to state magistrate, rather than the federal magistrate judge, despite fact deputy was detailed to a federal agency.  But deputy's position gave him flexibility to choose whether investigation would go state or federal.   
* No error in failing to suppress evidence. 
* Defendants waived and forfeited chance to challenge sufficiency of indictment.  Issue raised first time on appeal.  Won't fly unless the alleged defect is jurisdictional.  No jurisdictional defect here.  COA cited United States v. Marcinkewciz, No. 12-2441 (6th Cir. Oct. 29, 2013).