Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Court Says Officer Can Make Stop Based on Mistake of Law

Schwinn-steven
Steven D. Schwinn, John Marshall Law School

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday in Heien v. North Carolina that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit an officer from making a stop based on a reasonable mistake of law. We posted an argument preview here and review here.

The ruling puts a heavy thumb on the scale in favor of law enforcement and puts the burden of vague or ambiguous laws, or an officer's reasonable misunderstanding of law, on ordinary citizens.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the 8-justice majority that the "reasonable suspicion" standard required for a stop allows for an officer's mistake of law, no less than it allows for an officer's mistake of fact:

The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground. Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not what was thought, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law. There is no reason, under the text of the Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why this same result should be acceptable when reached by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but not when reached by way of a similarly reasonable mistake of law.

Chief Justice Roberts was careful to emphasize that a mistake must be objectively reasonable--a point emphasized by Justice Kagan (joined by Justice Ginsburg) in concurrence. Still, an officer's reasonable mistake of law is now enough to justify reasonable suspicion for a stop.

Justice Sotomayor filed the lone dissent. She argued that an officer's reasonable mistakes of fact are different from an officer's reasonable mistakes of law: officers are better at judging indeterminate and evolving facts on the street, but the courts are better at the law:

After all, the meaning of the law is  not probabilistic in the same way that factual determinations are. Rather, "the notion that the law is definite and knowable" sits at the foundation of our legal system. And it is courts, not officers, that are in the best position to interpret the laws.

She also argued that the majority's approach is a blow to civil liberties and police-community relations, and that it has "the perverse effect of preventing or delaying the clarification of the law."

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/conlaw/2014/12/court-says-officer-can-make-stop-based-on-mistake-of-law.html

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