Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Fourth Amendment - Search and Seizure - Reasonable Mistake of Law

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Fourth Amendment - Search and Seizure - Reasonable Mistake of Law

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court has long held that a police officer's reasonable mistake of fact may give rise to a lawful search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment. (1) But where an officer acts upon a reasonable mistake of law, lower courts have differed on whether the corresponding search or seizure encroaches upon constitutional rights. (2) Last Term, in Heien v. North Carolina, (3) the Supreme Court held that a police officer's reasonable mistake of law may give rise to the reasonable suspicion needed to justify a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment. (4) Mindful that an open-ended "reasonableness" test might sow confusion--or worse, abuse--both the majority and concurrence sought to cabin the reasonable-mistake-of-law test with additional qualifiers. Such qualifiers allay some but not all concerns over what the Heien test means for judicial administrability and police discretion.

Heien arose out of a routine traffic stop. In April 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff's Department was patrolling traffic when a Ford Escort passed by. (5) The driver's "stiff and nervous" demeanor aroused the officer's suspicions, prompting him to follow. (6) After a few miles, Darisse noticed that the Escort's right rear brake light didn't illuminate when triggered. (7) On the belief that state law required two functioning brake lights, he stopped the car with its two passengers: the driver, Maynor Javier Vasquez, and the owner, Nicholas Brady Heien. (8) Once Darisse confirmed that Vasquez possessed valid license and registration, he issued a warning ticket. (9) But Darisse did not leave. Dubious after the men reported inconsistent destinations, (10) he asked for and obtained permission to search the car. (11) His search turned up a sandwich bag of cocaine. (12)

Charged with attempted trafficking in cocaine, Heien moved to suppress the evidence obtained from the search, arguing that it flowed from an illegal stop. (13) The trial court refused on the grounds that Darisse had reasonable suspicion to effectuate his seizure under the Fourth Amendment. (14)

The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed. (15) In its view, a stop is not objectively reasonable when predicated upon an error of law. (16) Because the state vehicle code referred several times to a "stop lamp" in the singular, the court interpreted the law as requiring only one working brake light. (17) On that reading, Darisse lacked reasonable suspicion for stopping Heien. (18)

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed. (19) Though the state did not seek review of the lower court's interpretation of the vehicle code, (20) the court nonetheless upheld Darisse's stop. (21) It framed its analysis as a choice between one federal circuit's position that a mistake of law could never give rise to reasonable suspicion (22) and another circuit's requirement that police mistakes of law simply be reason-able. (23) The court embraced the latter view, believing that it would promote safer roadways (24) and better comport "with the primary command of the Fourth Amendment--that law enforcement agents act reasonably." (25)

The Supreme Court affirmed. (26) Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts (27) opened with the oft-cited proposition that "the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is 'reasonableness.'" (28) But "[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect." (29) Just as the Court has "recognized that searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact can be reasonable," (30) the Chief Justice reasoned, it should do the same for mistakes of law. (31)

For support, the Court looked first to cases arising out of an early statute indemnifying customs officers against unlawful-seizure suits. (32) In United States v. Riddle, (33) Chief Justice Marshall affirmed the issuance of a probable cause certificate for an officer who had seized En-glish goods based on a reasonable but mistaken reading of the statute. (34) "A doubt as to the true construction of the law is as reasonable a cause for seizure as a doubt respecting the fact," he pronounced. …

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