Tuesday, October 7, 2014
The Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in Heien, the case asking whether the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to make a car stop based on a mistake of law. (Our argument preview is here.) The petitioner put the Fourth Amendment--and only the Fourth Amendment--in front of the Court. But based on questions yesterday, the Court seemed to look for ways to wiggle around that framing--and possibly rule on something more, or less.
The petitioner worked mightily at argument and in briefing to distinguish between the underlying Fourth Amendment right and the remedy (exclusion of the evidence). That's because North Carolina automatically excludes evidence if the search violated the Fourth Amendment (without a good-faith exception)--a rule favorable to the petitioner, assuming a Fourth Amendment violation. (The state also interprets its own state constitutional provision in lock-step with the Fourth Amendment.) So the petitioner argued that if the Supreme Court ruled in his favor on the Fourth Amendment (alone), the Court should remand the case for a state-court ruling on the remedy (exclusion of the evidence, under North Carolina law). This, of course, hinged on the Supreme Court ruling on the Fourth Amendment alone.
The Court seemed skeptical. Led by Justice Scalia, questions pressed the petitioner on why it should separate the rights analysis from the remedy, when usually the two go hand-in-hand. Moreover, it wasn't clear why the petitioner should be able to take advantage of a federal Fourth Amendment ruling plus a state exclusionary rule in order to get the evidence excluded. The petitioner had answers (including the fact that the parties only barely briefed the remedy question), but it was clear that this was a sticking point.
On the other hand, some on the Court wondered whether the Court needed to get to the presented Fourth Amendment issue at all. That's because this was a consensual search (after the officer stopped the car). Justice Ginsburg led this line of questioning, but others joined in. Again, the petitioner had answers (fruit of the poisoning tree--the tree being the initial stop based on a mistake of law), but this, too, may be a sticking point.
In all, there were relatively few questions (and few indications one way or the other) on the presented question, whether the Fourth Amendment permits an officer to make a stop based on a mistake of law.