Friday, October 3, 2014
The Supreme Court will consider that question on First Monday, when it hears oral arguments in Heien v. North Carolina. Here's my oral argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases (with permission):
An officer in the Surry County Sheriff’s Department stopped the petitioner’s vehicle along an interstate highway because it had a broken right brake light. (The left brake light worked.) Upon a subsequent consensual search of the vehicle, the officer found cocaine, and the petitioner was charged with trafficking. The petitioner moved to suppress the evidence, arguing that the officer’s stop violated the Fourth Amendment. In particular, he argued that state law required only one operable brake light (an interpretation that the State does not dispute), that the officer based his stop on the mistaken belief that the petitioner violated state law, and that the officer therefore did not have reasonable suspicion that the petitioner broke the law.
Early one morning in April 2009, Nicholas Heien and Maynor Javier Vasquez were traveling on Interstate 77 through Surry County, North Carolina, in Heien’s Ford Escort. Vasquez was driving, and Heien was sleeping in the back seat.
Officer Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department was patrolling the interstate. He noticed the car and followed it. As the Escort approached a slower-moving vehicle, Darisse saw that the car’s left brake light functioned properly, but that the car’s right brake light was out. Darisse pulled the car over and told Vasquez and Heien that he stopped them “for a nonfunctioning brake light.”
North Carolina law requires all vehicles to have “a stop lamp.” More particularly, the law says that “[n]o person shall . . . operate on the highways of the State any motor vehicle . . . manufactured after December 31, 1955, unless it shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle.” (Emphasis added.) No North Carolina appellate court had ever construed this statute to require two working stop lights. But a different statute requires that “[e]very motor vehicle . . . shall have all originally equipped rear lamps . . . in good working order[.]” (Emphasis added.) And yet another provision permits brake lighting systems to be “incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.” (Emphasis added.)
Darisse issued Vasquez a warning citation for the malfunctioning brake light. He then told Vasquez to step out of the car and asked him questions about where he was going. At the same time, another officer, who arrived sometime after the initial stop, walked to the back window of the car and asked Heien similar questions. Vasquez and Heien gave different answers. Darisse then asked Vasquez if he would “mind if we made a quick check to make sure you don’t have any drugs or guns or anything like that” in the car. Vasquez told Darisse that he would have to ask Heien, because the car belonged to Heien. Heien consented.
The officers then searched Heien’s car and found a plastic sandwich baggie containing cocaine.
The State charged Heien with trafficking in cocaine. (The State also charged Vasquez. He pleaded guilty to attempted cocaine trafficking.) Heien filed a motion to suppress the evidence that the officers found in his car, arguing that the search violated the Fourth Amendment. In particular, Heien claimed that Darisse lacked “reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity had been committed or was being committed, or that a motor vehicle traffic offense or infraction had occurred” when Darisse stopped Heien’s car. (If the stop was illegal, then the subsequent search was illegal, and the court would have to suppress the evidence.) Heien also argued that his consent to the search was invalid. The trial court denied these motions.
Heien pleaded guilty to two variations of drug trafficking and was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of ten to twelve months. But he reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress the evidence.
On appeal of Heien’s motion to suppress, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, but a sharply divided North Carolina Supreme Court reserved the Court of Appeals (and affirmed the denial of Heien’s motion to suppress). Importantly, the State did not argue to the North Carolina Supreme Court that the state law required more than one working brake light, and the North Carolina Supreme Court did not rule on that question. Instead, the state high court assumed that the law required just one working brake light.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals and Supreme Court both later rejected Heien’s challenge to the validity of his consent and upheld his conviction and sentence. This appeal followed.
Under the Fourth Amendment, an officer may stop a vehicle based only on reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed. The Supreme Court has held that “reasonable suspicion” includes a reasonable mistake of fact. This means that an officer may stop a vehicle based on reasonable suspicion, even when that reasonable suspicion is, in turn, based on an officer’s mistake of fact. This rule is designed to balance the intrusion on an individual’s privacy in a car stop, on the one hand, and the state’s interest in allowing officers to stop a vehicle when there is a chance of illegal behavior, on the other. In short, the rule gives officers some leeway to make a quick factual judgment, under conditions of uncertainty, that a law has been broken.
This case tests whether this rule extends to an officer’s reasonable mistake of law. If so, then an officer could stop a vehicle based on a reasonable mistake of law that a crime has been committed, just as the officer could stop a vehicle based on a reasonable mistake of fact that a crime has been committed.
Heien argues that an officer’s reasonable suspicion must be measured against a correct interpretation (and not a misinterpretation) of the law. He says that the purpose of the reasonable suspicion standard is to constrain the discretion of an officer and to avoid arbitrary stops, and that a stop based on any misinterpretation of the law (including a reasonable misinterpretation) undermines that core purpose. He claims that our tradition supports this—that the common law has long held officers liable for mistakes of law—and that familiar legal precepts support this, too (for example, the precept that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”). He contends that various canons of statutory construction “reinforce the principle that government should not benefit from mistaken interpretations of ambiguous or otherwise confusing criminal laws.”
Heien acknowledges that the Fourth Amendment tolerates stops based on reasonable mistakes of fact. But he says that the reasons for this rule do not carry over to reasonable mistakes of law. In particular, he claims that the Fourth Amendment recognizes that officers often have to make quick factual assessments under conditions of uncertainty, and that the doctrine gives officers the flexibility to make good-faith mistakes of fact. He says that an officer’s legal judgment is different, however, because knowledge of the law does not require ad hoc, case-by-case assessment; instead, it is fixed and determinate and susceptible to ex ante analysis by the courts.
Next, Heien argues next that an officer’s mistake of law is sometimes relevant, but only to the remedy, and not to the underlying Fourth Amendment right. He means that an officer’s mistake of law is relevant in determining whether the evidence obtained should be excluded, or whether an officer enjoys qualified immunity for the Fourth Amendment violation, that is, to questions of remedy for Fourth Amendment violations. But he says that the same mistake of law is not relevant in determining whether the officer violated the underlying Fourth Amendment right—the issue in this case. He says that a long line of Supreme Court cases supports this interpretation, and shoe-horning the mistake-of-law inquiry into the Fourth Amendment question would be difficult to administer, lead to varying results (and thus varying versions of the Fourth Amendment), and undermine our very system of individual rights protection.
Finally, Heien argues that even if the Court considers Darisse’s mistake of law on the question of the underlying right, the Court should still rule that Darisse violated the Fourth Amendment. Heien claims that Darisse’s mistake was not based on his reasonable reliance on assurances from courts or legislatures (as in other cases), but instead on “his own overly aggressive interpretation of the law.” Moreover, Heien contends that other problems could arise if the Court concluded that Darisse did not violate the Fourth Amendment because of his mistake. In particular, Heien says that police departments would be discouraged from educating officers on the law, that they would be discouraged from asking legislatures to clarify ambiguous laws (because that would shrink officer discretion), and that motorists could be subject to stops for nearly any reason—so long as the officer made a reasonable mistake. Heien claims that it is the legislature’s job, not the officers’ job, to determine what traffic laws are necessary to promote safety; but allowing an officer to dodge the Fourth Amendment by making a mistake of law would, in essence, put the law solely in the officer’s hands.
The State argues that reasonable mistakes of law, just like reasonable mistakes of fact, can support an officer’s reasonable suspicion to make a traffic stop. The State says that the reason for allowing mistakes of law to support an officer’s reasonable suspicion—to give officers some room, given the often ambiguous situations in which they execute their duties—applies equally to mistakes of law. It also claims that the law has recognized that mistakes of law can be objectively reasonable, and that the Supreme Court has upheld officer actions based on mistakes of law. And it contends that any effort to distinguish between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law would be fruitless, because mistakes of fact and mistakes of law are often difficult to distinguish.
Next, the State argues that an officer’s mistake of law is not only relevant to the question of remedy, but also the question of right. In particular, the State claims that the exclusionary rule doctrine does not limit the consideration of an officer’s mistake of law to the remedy (exclusion of evidence). And it says that under the qualified immunity doctrine, reasonableness for the purpose of officer immunity is different than reasonableness for the purpose of the Fourth Amendment violation itself. Therefore, the State contends, contrary to Heien, that the qualified immunity doctrine says nothing about whether a mistake of law might support the question of the right itself. The State claims that even if an officer’s mistake of law does not support an investigatory stop, the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule would apply, and the evidence would come in. (Note that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule is not part of the Question Presented in the case, and Heien does not argue it.)
Finally, the State argues upholding stops based on reasonable mistakes of law advances the interests underlying the Terry doctrine. In particular, the State says that the Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968), recognized that officers often had to take “swift action predicated upon on-the-spot observations,” and therefore allowed investigatory stops based on mere reasonable suspicion (and not the higher standard, probable cause). The State claims that those same considerations support the use of an officer’s reasonable mistakes of law in making a stop. The State says that an officer may make a mistake of fact for any number of perfectly reasonable reasons. The State claims that this is a case in point: “The unsettled question of law here involved the interpretation of a statute that had been on the books for more than fifty years. No one had ever challenged the interpretation that all brake lights were required to be in working order.” The State says that there is no reason to believe that Darisse would have received any different advice if he could have asked for an interpretation of law in the field. In other words, the State claims that Darisse’s interpretation of the law was reasonable.
The government, as amicus curiae on the side of the State, argues first that the Fourth Amendment, where the ultimate touchstone is reasonableness, allows an officer to perform a car search when the officer reasonably believes that conduct violates the law, even if the officer’s belief turns out to be mistaken. The government says that this rule properly balances the suspect’s right to liberty and the state’s duty to control crime. The government claims that this only allows an officer to “start the judicial process,” and the courts can sort out the legality of the stop later. The government contends that a different rule would hamper law enforcement by discouraging officers from “starting the judicial process” in the first place.
Next, the government argues that courts since the Founding have held that officers could make a brief seizure when they acted on reasonable interpretations of the law, even when those interpretations turned out to be wrong. The government claims that courts since the Founding have even allowed mistakes of law in determining probable cause (a higher bar than the reasonable suspicion applicable here). The government says that more recent Supreme Court decisions similarly hold that an officer does not violate the Fourth Amendment when the officer acts on a reasonable mistake of law, and that those cases do not distinguish between the remedy question and the rights question, as Heien contends.
The government argues further that the same justifications that allow an officer to stop a vehicle upon a mistake of fact also allow an officer to stop a vehicle upon a mistake of law, that is, that mistakes of law should be treated the same as mistakes of fact for Fourth Amendment purposes. In particular, the government contends that “the strong public interest in bringing suspects into court when criminal conduct is probable but not certain” should justify allowing an officer’s mistakes of law as well as mistakes of fact to support a stop. The government claims that Heien’s attempts at distinguishing between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law are unavailing. It also says that the Court should not draw on the legal maxims or other rules from other areas of the law, as Heien argues, and that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule only reaffirms the fact that reasonable suspicion allows for reasonable mistakes.
Finally, the government argues that Darisse’s stop was supported by reasonable suspicion. The government claims that Darisse’s interpretation of North Carolina law was reasonable—that he reasonably interpreted the statutes to outlaw a broken brake light—and that he therefore had the requisite reasonable suspicion to make the stop.
This case will determine who should get the benefit of the doubt—a police officer, or a suspect—with regard to any evidence obtained when an officer makes a reasonable mistake of law leading to a traffic stop. That’s because an officer’s reasonable mistake of law necessarily means that the suspect did not actually engage in illegal activity justifying a stop. If the benefit goes to the suspect, then, the stop was invalid, and any evidence obtained in a subsequent search must be excluded. If the benefit goes to the officer, the stop was valid (even if based on a mistake of law), and the evidence can be used against the suspect.
But this benefit of the doubt could have other serious implications. For example, Heien and amici supporting him claim that giving the benefit of the doubt to the officer will lead to all sorts of public policy problems. These include decreased incentives for officer education; decreased incentives for clarifying uncertain law; increased incentives for stops for lawful conduct (so long as the state can gin up a reasonable post-hoc statutory rationalization for the stop); and even officer credibility in the community. One amicus points out that traffic stops disproportionately affect racial minorities. Another amicus points out that a ruling for the State would mean that police officers would be required to know less about the law than the general public (because, as Heien argues, “ignorance of the law is no excuse” for the general public).
On the other side, the State and its amici, including Wisconsin, eighteen other states, and the District of Columbia, say that giving the benefit of the doubt to a suspect would discourage valid stops and hamper law enforcement. They say that giving the benefit to the officer strikes the right balance between individual privacy and law enforcement. And the government suggests that if there are problems with a stop (for example, when a stop is based on an unreasonable interpretation of the law), the courts can sort them out later.
The case is also important because it will resolve a split in the federal and state courts. According to Heien’s Petition for Writ of Certiorari, the majority of federal courts of appeals and state high courts have concluded that a mistake of law cannot provide the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop. The North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling is in the minority.