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U.S. Supreme Court Rules that a Mistake of Law May Allow a Search Under the Fourth Amendment


This is in the case of Heien v. North Carolina, recently decided by the Supreme Court in an 8-1 decision. The issue was related to a search of a vehicle after a traffic stop. A police officer pulled over a vehicle for a broken tail light. The officer testified that during the traffic stop of issuing a ticket, he became suspicious of the driver and a person in the back seat under a blanket.

After being issued a ticket, the Defendant gave the officer consent to search the car. The search led to the discovery of cocaine and the Defendant was charged with attempting to traffic cocaine.

The trial court denied Heien’s motion to suppress the seized evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, concluding that the vehicle’s faulty brake light gave the officer reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the relevant code provision, which requires that a car be “equipped with a stop lamp,” requires only a single lamp. The Defendant had a stop lamp. The appellate court ruled the stop as objectively unreasonable.

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, assuming no violation of state law had occurred, the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable, and thus the stop was valid.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, said that a search or seizure is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment when an officer has made a reasonable factual or legal mistake. The Fourth Amendment jurisprudence turns on the question of reasonableness, governing officials have traditionally been allowed leeway to enforce the law for the community’s protection.

The Court noted that as long as the mistake of fact or law in question was reasonable, the Fourth Amendment does not hold such mistakes to be incompatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion. But the Court also pointed out that those mistakes must be objectively reasonable— an officer cannot gain the benefits of Fourth Amendment reasonableness through a sloppy or incomplete knowledge of the law.

In her concurring opinion, Justice Elena Kagan emphasized that the majority opinion’s analysis was limited to when the mistake of law in question is an objectively reasonable one. Justice Kagan also wrote that the test to determine whether an officer made an objectively reasonable mistake is much more stringent than the one to determine whether a government official is entitled to qualified immunity.

With all of the civil rights being taken away from citizens today, I am glad the Court still favored the rule of law. Fourth Amendment issues always turn on facts and it is important to get the facts right from the individuals involved. I believe that police dash cameras and body cameras will help with these issues in years to come.

The concern is that the police officers have the ability to turn the camera off on the dash. Considering the environment we live in today, I can’t imagine why an officer would not want a record of all factual events. If the facts are true and correct in their report, then the camera video should speak for itself. Unfortunately, the video sometimes does not match what is in a written report.

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