Supreme Court

Supreme Court Weighs Police Officer's 'Mistake of Law' in Fourth Amendment Case

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Credit: C-SPAN

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument today in Heien v. North Carolina, a case which asks whether a police officer's "mistake of law" can provide the necessary justification for a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.

The case arose in 2009 when North Carolina police stopped Nicholas Heien for driving with one broken brake light. That stop led to a search of Heien's vehicle, which in turn led to the discovery of illegal drugs. However, according to North Carolina law, motor vehicles are required only to have "a stop lamp." That means the officer was mistaken about the law and had no grounds for the original traffic stop. Did the officer violate Heien's right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure?

"The government should be presumed to know the laws," declared Jeffrey Fisher, the lawyer representing Heien before the Supreme Court. "It would undercut public confidence in law enforcement and the common law rule upon which the criminal law is built to say the government doesn't have to be presumed to know the law when it acted."

Robert Montgomery, the senior deputy attorney general of North Carolina, took a different approach, urging the justices to grant the police wide leeway—even in those instances when the officers may have acted in error. "The Fourth Amendment prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, but it does not require that police officers be perfect," Montgomery told the Court. "Because the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, all that is required is that a police officer have a reasonable view of the facts and apply those facts to a reasonable understanding of the law."

Both sides came in for sharp questioning from the bench. Justice Samuel Alito, for example, repeatedly pressed Fisher on why the police officer's approach should not receive more deference. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, by contrast, emerged as a critic of the North Carolina police force. "How many citizens have been stopped for one brake light who are asked to have their car searched?" Sotomayor asked the state lawyer at one point. "And is that something that we as a society should be encouraging?"

Chief Justice John Roberts, meanwhile, struck something of a balance, suggesting that while reasonable mistakes of law by the police can and will occur, the problem with the state's case was its "very broad definition of reasonable." "It sounds to me," Roberts said, "like you're adopting the same standard that we apply in qualified immunity, which gives the officers quite—quite broad scope, and that—that's troubling."

A decision in Heien v. North Carolina is expected by early next year.

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  1. If SCOTUS agrees with NC state here, that will destroy what is left of the 4th Amendment. It should not allow any definition of “reasonable mistake” to get through; even the smallest exception will be large enough to sail an oil tanker through. Cops will be specifically trained on exactly what to say to make their “mistakes” “reasonable” under the law.

  2. Everyone knows the Founders never intended the 4th Amendment to protect against searches and seizures in the cases where state agents didn’t know the limits of their own authority.

  3. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, by contrast, emerged as a critic of the North Carolina police force. “How many citizens have been stopped for one brake light who are asked to have their car searched?” Sotomayor asked the state lawyer at one point. “And is that something that we as a society should be encouraging?”

    The lone sane voice, here. How does broken tail light=I get search your car seem reasonable in the first place?

    1. First a broken tail light, then runs off to join ISIS! You bat ragging bea fuckers want the terrorists to win!

    2. It was established and admitted that the officer was involved in “criminal interdictions” and that he used the brake light as a (lawful, he thought) pretext to pull him over and request a search.

    3. For all of her faults, Justice Sotomayor is always the most consistent vote (and sometimes the only vote) in favor of the 4th Amendment.

      1. I was absolutely ready to hate her when she was put on the bench. I had angry thoughts and hateful words all screwed up and ready to go.

        And then she turns out to be smart and capable and not entirely loony.

        Son of a bitch!

        1. Yeah, she does seem to give a shit about the rights of criminal defendants, at least.

  4. a case which asks whether a police officer’s “mistake of law” can provide the necessary justification for a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.

    Umm, ignorance is no excuse for the law. Where have I heard that at before? I know I’ve heard it from somewhere/someone.

    1. ignorance is no excuse for the law

      Well, there is often no excuse for the law. (Sorry, I swear I’m not trying to pick on you today)

      1. FUCK!

        Ok, it was a long day. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. Ok, I was drunk when I heard it the first time!

  5. “The government should be presumed to know the laws,” declared Jeffrey Fisher, the lawyer representing Heien before the Supreme Court. “It would undercut public confidence in law enforcement and the common law rule upon which the criminal law is built to say the government doesn’t have to be presumed to know the law when it acted.”

    That sounds nice in theory, but come on.

    1. I’m hoping their opinion basically boils down to: “even we don’t know the law 100% of the time, how could we expect some knob of a cop on the street to”.

      1. Only ordinary citizens are expected to know the law 100% of the time, no excuses. Cops, elected officials, and bureaucrats are excused from knowing much of anything.

    2. Exactly. The law is, what, like a thousand pages long, and written in flowery language to boot.

      1. Actually, the law’s table of contents probably runs a thousand pages.

    3. From the arguments:

      …there is a paragraph or two that sets out with numerous citations this principle Justice Holmes described, and many others, that the criminal law is presumed to be definite and knowable.

      But yeah, good luck with that.

    4. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for non-state agents, but just fine and dandy for the government sector.

      Excuse me while I go and take an anti-emetic since I just ate dinner.

      1. Solid close by Fisher on this:

        And Mr. Chief Justice, you asked, I think, about the ignorance canon. The State’s response was, well, if somebody is reasonably mistaken about the law, we would convict him.
        And the reason why is because we would assume he knew the law. We would assume that somebody at the court of appeals split and this Court divided 5?-4, the person is still convicted because we assume they knew the law when they acted.
        And all we are asking for today is for the exact same assumption to apply to police officers.

  6. “Because the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, all that is required is that a police officer have a reasonable view of the facts and apply those facts to a reasonable understanding of the law.”

    Holy fuck what a mendacious shitbag this guy is. Obviously, a motorist with a bad marker light may reasonably be presumed to be a drug pusher, because…

    The obvious corollary to this is that any motorist who keeps his vehicle in proper working order is only doing so to avoid being pulled over; thus reasonable suspicion is justified, and ny car WITH NOTHING WRONG WITH IT is a legitimate target.

    I should be a state Attorney General.

  7. So, the attorney arguing for the police believes that the populace has to be perfect otherwise we open ourselves to state action BUT the enforcement agent of the state just has to be reasonably close in understanding the law.

    Well, I guess he is looking for consistency of expectation across government agencies. I mean … have you ever tried to get the IRS to consistently interpret the tax code?

    GG

  8. Would you care to explain, Mr. Montgomery, why we should grant such generous deference to those most likely to abuse their discretion? I don’t give my six year old nephew unsupervised access to the pantry when my sister’s family visits because I know he’s going to pilfer my stash of Entenmann’s. Why should I have another standard for someone equally likely to get handsy with the cookie jar?

    1. Let him have the Entenmann’s. Keep the good pastries for yourself.

      1. Eh, to be honest I don’t do much by way of sweets these days. I try to stick to a lowish carb diet, and although I fail miserably on the bread and pasta front, pastries and such were easy to cut out. But “my stash of premium roast coffee beans” didn’t quite match the picture I was painting.

  9. What do you suppose would happen if you drove around with a faulty brake light, and a container under the seat containing a big compressed spring “gag snake”? A little jocularity would be appreciated by the State Troopers, right?

    1. Just be sure to put on that look the driver gave to the highway patrol guy at the start of Repo Man as the smokey starts to open your gag snake can.

  10. “Because the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, all that is required is that a police officer have a reasonable view of the facts and apply those facts to a reasonable understanding of the law.”

    Ignorance of the law is no excuse a perfect excuse if you’re a jackbooted cop.

    Why even bother sending these cops to a training academy? Just send them to basic training along with our troops, and then arm them with machine guns and turn them loose in the street. the effect wouldn’t be much different from what we deal with now.

  11. A reasonable person might argue that if lawmakers can’t be more precise and specific than an appeal to “a reasonable person” then the law they’re crafting is bad.

  12. I agree with the theory that the burden on the state iow the police should be pretty high, such that this clearly should be a suppression.

    My state does not extend good-faith protection to police officers except in domestic violence cases

    Assuming good faith which appears to be the case here at least that it’s being stipulated, The question arises what a penalty if any should accrue to the police department for an arrest, assuming a custodial arrest was made for drugs.

    This does not fit the general definition of false arrest since there was probable cause. The issue is the reason how the probable cause was developed was due to a error by the police and and an ipso facto unlawful seizure for the stop

    1. This does not fit the general definition of false arrest since there was probable cause.

      What probable cause? The man was stopped because the cop misunderstood the law – they guy had committed no traffic violation.

      No traffic violation, no PC for the stop.

      An ‘error’ does not generate PC – the cop may *think* there’s PC, but there isn’t.

      This case pivots on how much deference we give to cops making mistakes like this (too much already,in my opinion, re: ‘mistakes’ on warrants and illegally obtained evidence not being excluded because of ‘reasonable errors’.

      Keep in mind, that deference shown police who screw up searches does not retroactively make the search legitimate, the court simply declines to exclude the evidence obtained.

      Same thing here. Even if the deference to police mistakes is upheld here, there *still will have been no PC*. The court will simply decline to exclude the evidence gathered during the stop.

  13. So I would conclude under federal constitutional law that yes the evidence should be suppressed

    I would not conclude that the qualified immunity should be vitiated since there was good faith and it does not meet the definition of gross misconduct (cue : reasonoid temper tantrum). However if the plaintiff could show through discovery that the officer acted grossly negligent due to specific training as to the statute I would rule differently on qualified immunity

    As to civil judgment I think that when she sues the Police Department she should get a reasonable monetary reward the exact amount being dependent on how long she was held in custody and whether her name was splashed in the paper and stuff like that

    For what it’s worth I recall a case in my agency where an officer made a infraction stop for a non-enforceable infraction on private property and found stolen property establishing probable cause for identity theft and PSP

    Due to the illegality of the stop the follow-up detective declined to forward the case for charges and that was the end of it as far as I know

    1. . . . it does not meet the definition of gross misconduct

      Really? Its not gross misconduct to not understand the very basic and simple vehicle code you’re tasked with enforcing? Because its considered very important the FUCKING DRIVER STOPPED understands the vehicle code.

      ‘Oh I’m sorry officer, I didn’t know that you had to signal before a lane change’

      ‘Sorry, gonna have to give you a ticket. How much money you carrying?’

  14. I am not speaking predictively in that I am not saying the Supreme Court will come to the same conclusion I am coming to

    They may not suppress but I am saying under my constitutional analysis they should

    In other words this is normative to some extent and not just descriptive

    In my state substantial liability attaches when this kind of thing happens where cops make a stop that is not valid according to the law and any injury occurs

    In other words even if the force was objectively reasonable and resulted in injury if the reason for the stop was not reasonable then that injury can get substantial civil redress

    Generally speaking this is much more restrictive towards the police than the federal standard

    And in my opinion that’s a good thing of course my state is far more restrictive towards police in many areas such as DUI to check points are unconstitutional under our state constitution

    ALSO WE CAN NO LONGER SEARCH A MOTOR VEHICLE INCIDENT TO ARREST WITHOUT A WARRANT WHICH IS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THAN THE FEDERAL STANDARD

    These differences arise because our state recognizes a right to privacy whereas the federal fourth amendment only protects against unreasonable searches and seizures

    Speaking normatively I think it would be better if our federal Constitution was much more protective of privacy versus the way it is currently written
    Smooches!

  15. Also under my states privacy protections I have zero doubt that if this happened in Washington state it would’ve been automatically suppressed do your privacy protections

    1. Why won’t you post under your old moniker?

  16. Wow, it is really quiet around here this evening. Are they giving away free beer, pot, and hookers somewhere and I don’t know about it?

  17. Only the government could argue that being wrong is reasonable.

  18. Because the touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, all that is required is that a police officer have a reasonable view of the facts and apply those facts to a reasonable understanding of the law

    From the double standards department: the only time when a peasant can claim that their understanding of the law, albeit mistaken, was reasonable is when they are relying on advice of counsel, which is a very narrowly construed exception.

    But let’s take a gander at the 4A:

    The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

    I’ve always read this to mean

    (a) any warrantless search is de facto unreasonable and illegal,

    (b) that any warrant issued on the basis of anything but a sworn statement providing admissible evidence, is illegal,

    (c) that any warrant that is not particular and specific is illegal

    (d) that any search that goes beyond the scope of the warrant is illegal.

    IOW, the second half of the 4A defines what is a “reasonable” search. I see nothing in there about mistakes of law. I think, in context, reasonableness applies to the contents of the affidavit (is it credible?) and the scope of the warrant (is it reasonable particular, etc.).

  19. Sounds like one heck of a deal to me dude.

    http://www.Anon-Planet.tk

  20. So they are upgrading FYTW to FYTW! ?

  21. They will just do what CA has already done, which is to pass a law requiring any lights present to work.

    Where I live, the cops would just lie and say both lights were out. I’ve had them tell me my light was out, while we’re both looking at it illuminated. Then he said it must be “erratic,” but, can I search your car. Cops want to search everyone, and they make it happen, one way or another. Maybe just stick to ambiguous moving violations?

    I have little doubt this ruling will not change much, if anything. Also, the likelihood is a ruling in favor of the cops. They found dope, after all. Just proves the strength of their intuition.

    I’m a little jaded, perhaps, but with good reason.

    1. I have little doubt this ruling will not change much, if anything. Also, the likelihood is a ruling in favor of the cops.

      Agreed on both points. This will set the groundwork for cops to say a few magic words to generate the required “reasonable” belief that some law, somewhere, might be broken, maybe, and thus give them the right to search anyone, anywhere, anytime, for no reason at all.

      1. “Stop resisting!” justifies any beating.

        “I feared for my life!” justifies any murder.

        “I fucked up” justifies any search.

  22. The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures shall not be violated; and no warrant shall issue except upon probable cause supported by oath or affirmation particularly describing the place or places to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. – Constitution, State of Georgia

    Hm…

  23. If I am pulled over for a traffic violation (civil laws) and the officer wants to search my car for criminal violations my answer is going to be: “Do you have a warrant to search my vehicle? Do you have probable cause that I have committed a crime?” If not, I will firmly tell the officer “You don’t have my permission to search my vehicle. Any search will be a violation of my 4th Amendment rights.” Don’t give them permission. If they persist in demanding for a search ask for their duty sergeant or patrol supervisor to physically come to the scene. That may change their attitude. Citizens need to exert and protect their rights at the time of the infraction or issue. If you end up in court, like Heien, it is too late.

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