TRAFFIC STOPS AND THE FOURTH AMENDMENT
In this case, a police officer stops a suspicious vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out–but a state court later determined that drivers in North Carolina only need one working brake light. The issue is whether this mistake of law by the officer–believing that two working brake lights were required to comply with the traffic statute–can nevertheless give rise to reasonable suspicion to uphold a seizure under the Fourth Amendment?
Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Office, pulled over a Ford Escort driven by Maynor Javier Vasquez because the right taillight was out. Nicholas Brady Heien was a passenger in the Ford Escort.
After giving Vasquez a warning ticket for the taillight violation, Heien consented to a search of the vehicle and Officer Darisse found cocaine in a duffel bag within the Ford Escort. Heien and Vasquez were both arrested and Heien was later charged with attempted drug trafficking.
Fourth Amendment Violation:
Heien filed a motion to suppress the cocaine found in the duffel bag because–according to Heien–the officer’s basis for the traffic stop was based on a mistake of law. Specifically, under North Carolina traffic law–and unlike most state traffic laws–only one brake light of a vehicle is required to work. Therefore, Heien contended that because his left taillight was operating–there was no legal basis to believe that a traffic offense had occurred–and the cocaine should be suppressed because it was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
In ruling for North Carolina, the Supreme Court held that reasonable suspicion for the traffic stop can be based on a mistaken–but reasonable interpretation of a traffic statute. The Court noted that reasonable suspicion arises from an officer’s understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law. An officer can be mistaken on either ground and still have reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop so long as his mistake is reasonable.
According to the Court: “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.'” This means that a police officer’s conduct can be reasonable but not perfect. Here, the officer incorrectly–but reasonably interpreted the North Carolina traffic statute to require two working tail lights instead of one.
In other words, police have some leeway to be wrong–so long as their mistaken belief of the law is objectively reasonable. The Court affirmed Heien’s conviction.
GENARO R. CORTEZ