In a case where the officer is reasonably mistaken about the law and evidence is seized, the evidence will not be suppressed.
The United States Supreme Court has long recognized that when a law enforcement officer makes a reasonable mistake of fact, there is no violation of the Fourth Amendment such that evidence seized as a result of the mistake would have to be excluded. The question in Heien v. North Carolina [i] is whether the evidence must be excluded when the officer makes a reasonable mistake of law rather than a reasonable mistake of fact.
On the morning of April 29, 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department sat in his patrol car near Dobson, North Carolina, observing northbound traffic on Interstate 77. Shortly before 8 a.m., a Ford Escort passed by. Darisse thought the driver looked “very stiff and nervous,” so he pulled onto the interstate and began following the Escort. A few miles down the road, the Escort braked as it approached a slower vehicle, but only the left brake light came on. Noting the faulty right brake light, Darisse activated his vehicle’s lights and pulled the Escort over.
Two men were in the car: Maynor Javier Vasquez sat behind the wheel, and petitioner Nicholas Brady Heien lay across the rear seat. Sergeant Darisse explained to Vasquez that as long as his license and registration checked out, he would receive only a warning ticket for the broken brake light. A records check revealed no problems with the documents, and Darisse gave Vasquez the warning ticket. But Darisse had become suspicious during the course of the stop—Vasquez appeared nervous, Heien remained lying down the entire time, and the two gave inconsistent answers about their destination. Darisse asked Vasquez if he would be willing to answer some questions. Vasquez assented, and Darisse asked whether the men were transporting various types of contraband. Told no, Darisse asked whether he could search the Escort. Vasquez said he had no objection, but told Darisse he should ask Heien, because Heien owned the car. Heien gave his consent, and Darisse, aided by a fellow officer who had since arrived, began a thorough search of the vehicle. In the side compartment of a duffle bag, Darisse found a sandwich bag containing cocaine. The officers arrested both men.
The issue that arose was whether the single faulty brake light gave the officer reasonable suspicion to stop the car in the first place. Under the North Carolina law, a vehicle was only required to have a single brake light thus, in actuality there was nothing illegal in having a single defective light as long as the other light was working.
In its review of the case, the Court noted that the State had not challenged the interpretation of the statute as requiring only one working brake light. The Court went on to note however that other provisions of the North Carolina Motor Vehicle Code could lead to a reasonable misunderstanding by a law enforcement officer. The Court cited another provision of the North Carolina Motor Vehicle Code that indicated that required all originally equipped lamps be functional.
The Court found that reasonable suspicion can rest on a reasonable mistake of law by the officer. In rejecting Heien’s argument that the maxim “ignorance of the law is no excuse” the Court explained that this criminal law concept would apply if Heien were appealing a ticket based on the brake light out, but does not apply to the determination of whether the officer had reasonable suspicion.
The Court concluded that based on the review of several provisions of the North Carolina Motor Vehicle Code, the officer’s misunderstanding was reasonable and therefore his actions were based on a reasonable mistake of law. The evidence was properly admitted.
Note: Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions. As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases. This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.
[i] Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ____ (slip opinion 13-604) (2014).