The Supreme Court decided Heien v. North Carolina this week (12/15/2014)–which arose from a traffic stop in North Carolina.

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.

Court’s Ruling:

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.

For more information on this case, click here to read an analysis by Orin Kerr on Scotusblog.  NPR’s ALL THINGS CONSIDERED also has an excellent article on the Heien ruling.

Phone:  210.733.7575

Criminal Background Checks


According to a recent Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article, nearly one in three adult Americans have a criminal record.  This is causing problems for both employers looking to hire and prospective employees looking to find a job after being arrested, convicted, or both of a criminal offense.  Click here (subscription required) to read the article.

ARREST RECORDS.  Photo by Abu Badali and used under the Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Employers are facing increasing pressure from federal, state, and local authorities to delay asking applicants about their criminal history until a conditional job offer is made to an applicant.  These are know as “ban-the-box” laws.

According to the WSJ article, the United States Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) wrote a 2012 memo that recommended to employers not to ask about criminal records on initial application forms.

Instead, employers are encouraged to consider the following factors before rejecting someone because of a criminal record:  (1) when the conviction occurred; (2) whether the crime was related to the job in question; and (3) what rehabilitation efforts the individual has made.

Criminal records also cause obvious problems for applicants with a criminal history or a “rap sheet.”  It is very difficult for many applicants who have a felony or misdemeanor conviction on their record to find a job.  On a side note–if you have a pending criminal charge and are considering applying to law school, medical school, becoming a teacher, becoming a law enforcement officer, or joining the military–then you should also consider if a criminal conviction for the offense you are charged with will bar you from getting licensed or certified to work in that field.

This is why it is so important to speak with a qualified attorney before pleading guilty to any offense.  The collateral consequences of that conviction–such as loss of employment opportunities–can cause problems years down the road.

If you are missing out on employment opportunities because of your criminal history–you should discuss your case with an attorney to see if you can have your criminal history expunged or sealed.  Click here for my prior post on expunctions and petitions for non-disclosure.

Phone:  210.733.7575