Although the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “The right of the people to be secure … against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, … ” the Supreme Court has ruled that if a police officer makes a traffic stop because the officer is mistaken about the law, and then the officer searches the car, that is not an unreasonable search.

The Supreme Court made this ruling in the case of Heien v. North Carolina. The story of the case is that a police officer, when observing traffic on I-77, spotted a car that he thought looked suspicious and followed it. When the officer noticed that the car’s right brake light was out, he pulled it over. While giving Heien (the car’s owner) and the driver a warning ticket, the officer became more suspicious due to the men’s behavior, and asked for and obtained their permission to search the car. When the officer found cocaine, the men were arrested and charged with attempted drug trafficking.

Heien’s case was appealed because North Carolina vehicle code does not actually require a car to have two working brake lights; one is sufficient. Heien argued that since the traffic stop happened because the police officer misunderstood the law, the search was unreasonable and the cocaine was not admissible as evidence. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with Heien’s argument. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled against Heien because, even allowing that having only one working brake light was not a violation of the vehicle code, nevertheless the vehicle code at other points seems to imply that all the original rear lamps on a car should be working. Thus, they reasoned, the officer’s understanding that having a broken brake light was a violation was an objectively reasonable mistake of the law (our emphasis). The majority of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the state Supreme Court.

In its ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court attempted to limit the latitude this gives to law enforcement by specifying that any mistake in law that results in a search or seizure must be an objectively reasonable mistake. They mean that the prosecution needs to be able to explain how any mistake in the law would be one any reasonable, thinking person might make (as in this case, where part of the vehicle code referred to one brake light but another part referred to the rear lamps in general). (Read more discussion of the history and logic of the ruling here.)

However, we see this ruling as further eroding the people’s constitutional protections against the power of the Government. Is the Supreme Court justified in hoping that this ruling will only be applied when the law is truly unclear or confusing? Or will this ruling become a license for police officers to harass people on flimsy suspicions?


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