Heien v. North Carolina: Fourth Amendment

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.

Click here for a transcript of today’s oral arguments and here for links to petitions courtesy of Scotusblog.

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.

Fourth Amendment Search And Seizure
Fourth Amendment Search And Seizure

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
Attorney
Phone:  210.733.7575

Duration of Traffic Stops

SUPREME COURT GRANTS CERT.

The Supreme Court of the United States granted cert., i.e., agreed to review the following cases today.  One of the cases the Court agreed to review is Rodriguez v. United States, No. 13-9972, which deals with the duration of a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.

HOW LONG SHOULD TRAFFIC STOPS LAST?

In Rodriguez, Morgan Struble, a K-9 police officer, pulled over Denny Rodriguez after Rodriguez drove on the shoulder of the road.  Scott Pollman was the passenger in the vehicle.

First, Struble approached Rodriguez’s vehicle and requested Rodriguez’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.  Rodriguez provided these documents and Struble returned to his squad car and conducted a records check on Rodriguez.

Second, Struble returned to Rodriguez’s vehicle and questioned the passenger, Scott Pollman, about their prior travel itinerary.  Struble returned to his patrol car a second time and conducted a records check on Pollman.  While in his patrol car, Struble called for a backup officer to assist with the stop.  Struble completed the traffic stop by giving Rodriguez a written warning.

After the traffic stop was completed, Struble asked Rodriguez for permission to walk his K-9, named Floyd, around Rodriguez’s vehicle to conduct a sniff.  Rodriguez declined and Struble ordered Rodriguez out of the vehicle and conducted a K-9 sniff.  Seven or eight minutes later, Floyd detected an odor of narcotics in the vehicle and Rodriguez was arrested and prosecuted for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine.

The trial court denied Rodriguez’s motion to suppress based on the prolonged traffic stop.  The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this decision noting that a brief delay to conduct a K-9 sniff is not unreasonable under existing case law and facts of this traffic stop.  The Supreme Court will review this case.  Click here to read the opinion that is being reviewed.

WHY THIS CASE MATTERS.

The facts in this case are common.  Police conduct a legitimate traffic stop for a petty moving violation and then investigate for more serious crimes.  The question then becomes how long can police detain a person under the Fourth Amendment after the initial purpose of the traffic stop has been completed?

This case is important for people arrested for state or federal drug possession after being detained for a traffic offense.  In these types of cases, it is often difficult to establish the defendant had no knowledge that drugs were in the vehicle (i.e., “I don’t know nothing about drugs in the vehicle”) for a variety of reasons including:  (1) the location where the drugs were found make it difficult for a defendant to plausibly deny knowledge that he or she was in possession of contraband; and (2) post-arrest statements by a defendant who confesses to drug possession.

This requires that defense counsel look at how police found the drugs in the first place–for instance as in this case–should police have let Rodriguez drive off after the initial purpose of the traffic stop was completed so as not to interfere with Rodriguez’s travel itinerary?  Or was it permissible for police to detain Rodriguez for a short period of time, 7-8 minutes in this case, in order to conduct a K-9 sniff.  These issues are fact specific–but regardless of the decision the Supreme Court makes–it will provide guidance on how to analyze these cases and issues.

Please check back with this blog for updates on how this case is decided.

Genaro R. Cortez
Attorney
Phone:  210.733.7575