Heien v. North Carolina, 13-604
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Heien v. North Carolina, which is a Fourth Amendment case on traffic stops.
The issue is whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop.
What’s this case about?
In 2009, police pulled over a car in North Carolina because the right-brake light was out. The left brake light was functioning properly. Nicholas Brady Heien was a passenger and the owner of the vehicle.
After the stop, Heien consented to the search of his vehicle and police found two ounces of cocaine and other drug residue. Heien and the driver were charged with drug trafficking offenses.
However, under North Carolina traffic law–it was only necessary for one brake light to be operational. (Click here for a discussion on the origins of the one-brake light rule.)
Heien filed a motion to suppress and alleged that since no traffic offense was committed, police did not have reason to conduct a traffic stop and any evidence obtained should not be admitted at trial. This motion was denied by the trial court.
The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling. The North Carolina Supreme Court found the officer incorrectly interpreted the traffic statute. However, it determined this mistake of law was reasonable and therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court granted cert. and heard oral arguments today.
Why are you blogging about this?
The facts in this case are common: police observe (or think they observe) a traffic offense, conduct a traffic stop, and then discover guns, drugs, or other contraband. The driver, passenger(s), or both are then charged with a serious crime that carries a significant prison term. The question becomes–how do you get out of this jam?
The Fourth Amendment protects all of us from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But the text of this amendment does not tell us what the remedy should be if a violation occurs. So the Supreme Court created the Exclusionary Rule that is designed solely to deter future Fourth Amendment violations by law enforcement. For a more complete discussion on the application of the Exclusionary Rule, see Davis v. United States, 131 S.Ct. 2419 (2011).
This means the courts will only apply the Exclusionary Rule when the deterrence effect outweighs the social cost of setting a criminal loose in the community without punishment. In short, suppression of evidence will depend largely on how egregious the police conduct and mistakes were in each case. In this case–it appears the officer’s mistake was reasonable and not egregious. And the question will be on whether the exclusionary rule will be applied in this case.
I will follow this case and update our blog on the outcome.
Genaro R. Cortez