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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > April 2015 > Search & Seizure of Vehicles (Mistakes of Law and Investigatory Stops): Heien v. North Carolina

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Search & Seizure of Vehicles (Mistakes of Law and Investigatory Stops): Heien v. North Carolina

Question: If you stop someone based on your misinterpretation of the law, is the stop valid?
Quick Answer: Yes, but only if the mistake of law is one a reasonable officer would make.
Heien v. North Carolina, U.S. Supreme Court, North Carolina, Dec. 15, 2014
Facts:  While on patrol, Sgt. Matt Darisse observed a stiff and nervous-looking driver. Darisse pulled out and followed the vehicle. After noting a defective right brake light, he stopped the vehicle. Upon approach, Darisse saw that one man, later identified as Nicholas Brady Heien, was lying across the rear seat. Darisse became suspicious during the course of the stop because of the driver’s nervousness and inconsistent answers, and the fact that Heien was laying down the entire time. Darisse asked if there was any contraband in the vehicle. After being told no, he asked if he could search the vehicle. Both the driver and Heien, who owned the car, gave permission. The vehicle was searched and cocaine was discovered inside a duffle bag. Both the driver and Heien were arrested.
Heien moved to suppress the cocaine arguing Darisse had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by not having a reasonable suspicion to stop the car. The trial court determined Darisse did have reasonable suspicion to pull the vehicle over because the brake light was out. The court of appeals reversed saying that under North Carolina law driving with one brake light was not a violation, and as a result Darisse did not have a justification for making the stop. The North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed and said that while the court of appeals was correct in the technical reading of the law, Darisse could have reasonably, even if mistakenly, read the vehicle code to require both brake lights be in working order. The case was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Importance: Pulling someone over for something that isn’t actually illegal is never a good idea, but sometimes a “mistake of law” is excusable. As a peace officer, you’re expected to know the law of your jurisdiction, but laws aren’t always clear. They can be confusing and contradictory. When that happens, peace officers try to make reasonable interpretations of what the law means. The courts will look at the law and your interpretation of it. If a reasonable officer would have made the same mistake, the courts may choose not to suppress the evidence.
But this doesn’t give you a free pass to not learn the law. The statute in this case was confusing, and could be read different ways. When a statute is confusing and the legal issue is not well-settled, a reasonable interpretation of it may survive a constitutional challenge. But if the statute’s meaning is easily understood or well-settled, misapplication of the law can easily lead to suppression.
Keep in mind: The reasonable mistake principle has applied to factual mistakes for many years. For example, a warrantless search of a home is reasonable if officers gain consent from someone who reasonably appears to be the resident, even if that individual has no authority. This case makes clear that the principle also applies to mistakes about the scope of law.
More on Search and Seizure of Vehicles:
Fast cars and slow police computers. While on patrol you notice two occupants of a vehicle look away as they drive past. Determining that this was suspicious, you pull out and follow the car. The car is driving in a 30 m.p.h. zone and you visually estimate its speed to be about 40 m.p.h. Setting your speedometer at 40 m.p.h. you follow the car a quarter of a mile, watching to determine whether the car maintains its speed. The speed is maintained and you pull the driver over. On approach you note the passenger is noticeably intoxicated and barely able to keep her head up. But you do not detect the odor of alcohol, so you suspect drugs are involved. You head back to your cruiser to run the driver’s information, but your computer is delayed. While waiting, you call for back up and the canine unit arrives before your computer starts working. The canine unit alerts and heroin is found on the passenger. Was the stop valid? The court in West says yes. First, the use of pacing was appropriate because the officer used the speedometer as the gauging tool, which qualifies as an electric mechanical or digital device to determine the speed of a motor vehicle. Second, even though the stop was admittedly longer than usual, it was only delayed because the police computer was not working. The canine unit arrived prior to the issuance of the traffic ticket and caused no unreasonable delay. State of Ohio v. West, Second Appellate District, Montgomery County, Feb. 6, 2015.
Obstructed Stickers:  You receive information from a confidential informant: two suspects are at a residence cooking crack cocaine and will soon be leaving. You head over to the location for surveillance. The suspects get into a vehicle and leave. You begin to follow them and observe the license plate sticker and top portion of the license plate are partially obstructed and the validation sticker is hard to read, so you stop them. Was the stop proper? The court in Young says yes. The stop on an obstructed sticker was valid. Photographic evidence showed the top portion of the license plate reading “Ohio” and “Birthplace of Aviation” was covered by an eagle emblem on the decorative bracket bordering the license plate. The photos also showed that the bottom half of the county sticker was obscured by that bracket. Because the sticker was obstructed to the point of being unreadable, the stop was proper under the R.C. 4503.21(A).  State of Ohio v. Young, Sixth Appellate District, Erie County, Jan. 30, 2015. See also, State of Ohio v. Bradley, Sixth Appellate District, Erie County, Jan. 30, 2015.