Stop Based Upon Reasonable Mistake of Law is Permissible

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) just issued a ruling that further weakens our Fourth Amendment protections. It held that a reasonable mistake of law by police when stopping a vehicle does not violate a persons Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizures.

In Heien v. North Carolina, the police officer stopped a vehicle after noticing that one brake light was out. But, North Carolina law requires both taillights out to be in violation of the traffic code. Upon being stopped, the Defendant consented to a search of the vehicle, which yielded the discovery of narcotics in the vehicle. The Defendant was ultimately convicted of drug trafficking based upon the consensual search following a stop that was made upon a mistake of law.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with the Defendant that he was not in violation of any law. Thus, the Court of Appeals found that the stop was not justified without a violation of the law. The North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, holding that the Fourth Amendment protection is only from unreasonable seizures and the mistake of law was reasonable. Consequently, the Fourth Amendment was not violated.

The SCOTUS agreed with the North Carolina Supreme Court. After noting that there was scant case law on the topic of the reasonableness of a stop based upon a reasonable mistake of law, the SCOTUS held that, because the officer’s mistake of the meaning of the state’s traffic code was reasonable, there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment. Besides another holding further abridging a defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights, the biggest issue is how the “reasonable mistake of law” is analyzed and put into effect by the lower courts going forward.

Think about – an officer can have a reasonable mistake of law to support a traffic stop. Aren’t police officers duty bound to know the law when upholding it? Of course they are! And the SCOTUS understood this when stating that the officers legal error must be objectively reasonable, and not based upon a particular officers subjective understanding or simple sloppy understanding of the law. The SCOTUS demands that officers must learn the law. Again, what does this actually mean though going forward?

Justice Kagan – joined by Justice Ginsburg – emphasized that only a “genuinely ambiguous” statute should support this reasonable mistake of law argument. Still, I agree with the dissent by Justice Sotomyaor that this ruling “will prove murky in application,” to say the very least.


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