Misunderstanding of Law Still Could Produce Reasonable Suspicion

If a police officer stops a driver based on a mistaken understanding of the law, the driver’s Fourth Amendment rights have not been violated, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month.

The court ruled 8-1 in Heien v. North Carolina, a case in which an officer stopped a driver who was traveling with only one working brake light. The officer cited a brake light malfunction as the reason for the stop, but also searched the car and found cocaine.

The car owner, however, argued there was no brake light violation of the law and therefore the stop and subsequent charges were not valid. State law requires drivers “be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle,” which he argued he did not violate.

In the Dec. 15 opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said because the officer’s mistake about the brake light law was reasonable, the stop in this particular case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizure.

The case concerned a traffic stop in North Carolina in which an officer followed a driver who appeared “very stiff and nervous.” The officer stopped the car after following it for several miles and noticing only one brake light functioned. The officer examined the license and registration, both of which were valid.

However, the officer became suspicious during the stop and asked whether the two men had any sort of contraband. After denying it, the officer asked to search the car. The car owner, who previously was asleep in the back seat, agreed to a search, which resulted in the officers finding cocaine.

The state charged Heien, the owner, with attempted trafficking in cocaine. Heien moved to suppress the evidence seized from the car, contending that the stop and search had violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The trial court denied the suppression.

The case, however, was appealed in state court. The appeals court reversed the decision and found the mistaken belief that the driver had committed a traffic violation did not warrant “objectively reasonable justification” for a traffic stop. The driver was not in violation of the law, according to the ruling.

The state appealed, taking the case to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The higher court disagreed, stating the officer’s mistake was “reasonable,” which justified reasonable suspicion. An officer may make a mistake of the law, yet act reasonably, according to the ruling.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed, saying the “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’” Chief Justice Roberts said, “To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayer wrote a dissenting opinion, saying the court’s ruling further erodes the protection of civil liberties under the Fourth Amendment. The decision, she said, also will contribute to distrust between police and citizens.

Read the full U.S. Supreme Court decision here.