United States Supreme Court hears arguments on Fourth Amendment violations where police mistakenly conduct traffic stop

On October 6, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments from defense counsel, the North Carolina State Attorney General, and the U.S. Solicitor General regarding the matter of Heien v. North Carolina. The question initially posed before the Court was whether a traffic stop premised on an officer’s mistaken understanding of a state statute violates the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. But as arguments proceeded, the issue became much more complicated, leaving some Justices concerned that this case raises more serious implications than initially anticipated.

The defendant in this case was a passenger in his own vehicle as it was operated by a friend down an interstate highway in North Carolina. A highway patrol officer noticed that only one of the defendant’s two brake lights was functioning. While the state statute only requires that vehicles have only one functioning break light, the officer interpreted the statute incorrectly and stopped the defendant’s vehicle to issue a warning to the defendant. The defendant then consented to the officer’s request to search the vehicle. And after forty minutes, the officer discovered a plastic sandwich bag containing cocaine. The defendant was charged and convicted on the charge of trafficking cocaine.

ISSUES BEFORE THE COURT
The disposition of this case, as presented by defense counsel, depends on two main question:

  1. Whether the initial traffic stop violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right, and if so,
  2. Whether the remedy for the defendant would be to exclude all the evidence obtained as a result of the traffic stop from being used at trial to convict the defendant.

Fourth Amendment law protects individuals from all “unreasonable” seizures and searches by law enforcement officers. And as previously decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, a brief investigatory stop – including a traffic stop – constitutes a seizure for Fourth Amendment purposes. Any traffic stop that is not founded on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” that a crime has occurred or is underway is an unreasonable seizure and a violation of the seized individual’s Fourth Amendment right.

The issues in this case stem from the fact that the officer who stopped the defendant’s vehicle was acting under a mistaken understanding of the state statute that really only requires one taillight to be functioning. This is called a “mistake of law,” because the mistake was not in believing the defendant’s vehicle had only one functional brake light (which would otherwise be a “mistake of fact”) but rather that operating a vehicle with only one functional brake light was a violation of state law.

THE “RIGHTS” ARGUMENT
If the officer’s understanding of the state law was mistaken, the question then becomes whether an officer’s mistake of law could justify a lawful traffic stop. In other words, does a traffic stop violate a defendant’s Fourth Amendment right if the officer misunderstood the law that he believed was violated? For the most part, the Justices seemed convinced that a traffic stop based on a mistake of law does violate the Fourth Amendment. But a subsequent question of whether an officer’s mistake is excusable if it is “reasonable” also arises. However, as will be discussed below, this question remains an important issue of dispute for the Court.

THE “REMEDY” ARGUMENT
If the Supreme Court decides as the Justices appeared to have leaned with regard to the question of whether a Fourth Amendment right was violated, the subsequent question would be whether the defendant is entitled to have his conviction vacated and the drug evidence excluded since it was obtained in violation of the his constitutional right. This is more of a “remedy” issue since it deals with how a court could cure the damage caused to the defendant by the officer’s intrusion on his Fourth Amendment right (in contrast to the earlier issue of whether the defendant’s right was violated at all).

The “remedy” question was a complicated issue for the Court because it raised a federalism problem. The defendant was stopped by North Carolina law enforcement as he was traveling on North Carolina roads. Therefore, the defendant faces violations of state laws in state court. But the defendant continues to have rights under the Federal Constitution – which are still reviewed by the North Carolina state courts for determinations as to whether any constitutional rights were violated.

A serious complication arises in comparing how North Carolina courts examined the remedy issue posed by this case under the federal Fourth Amendment in comparison to how the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the same questions. Could North Carolina create remedies for Fourth Amendment violations where Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court have not? More specifically, the North Carolina law previously stated that the reasonableness of an officer’s mistake of law is irrelevant to the question of a Fourth Amendment violation, and does not excuse that violation, thereby calling for exclusion of any evidence obtained from a search and seizure conducted in violation of the individual’s Fourth Amendment right. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, ruled in the exact opposite direction in the case of U.S. v. Leon, where the Court held that evidence would not be excluded as long as the Fourth Amendment intrusion was premised on a “good faith” belief by the officer that a law was violated. Which law applies to the remedy question on Fourth Amendment violations – state or federal?

The traditional law is that the U.S. Supreme Court has the final say on how the federal constitution (and federal legislation) is to be interpreted, whereas state supreme courts have the final word on how state law is to be interpreted. However, because this a question of “remedy” rather than “right,” the Supreme Court was thrown off guard since remedies are usually within the sphere of state law, and unfortunately neither party to the appeal had actually submitted a brief specifically on this question of remedy. But defense counsel did suggest in arguments that the state’s decisions on remedies should be respected by the federal court. Even more, defense counsel asked that should the Court find its decision on remedies to be the binding rule, that it should specifically articulate a decision where it states that the same “good faith exception” does NOT apply to the constitutional right.

DEFINING “REASONABLENESS” AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
A corollary issue to this case was the question of what constitutes a “reasonable” mistake of law, excusing a Fourth Amendment violation. If the issue of whether the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right was violated rests on the more narrow issue of whether the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable, what exactly would differentiate a “reasonable” mistake from an “unreasonable” mistake?

Although the Justices questioned the attorneys on this question, the Court did not state what it thought constituted “reasonable” mistake. Instead, the Justices continued to express strong concern that, by allowing officers to act only on a “reasonable” understanding of the law (rather than the correct understanding of the law), the Court would essentially be granting officers the discretion to choose whether or not to act in a way that may violate a constitutional right whenever there’s an ambiguity in the law. That type of law enforcement would undermine both the function of officers as enforcers of actual law (rather than of mistaken understanding of the law) and would jeopardize society’s trust in police authority.

This issue is only one among many that the Court may or may not decide to opine on when announcing its decision several months from now.

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