Police Abuse

Sotomayor Is Right: SCOTUS Gave Too Much Leeway to the Police in Heien v. North Carolina

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Credit: White House / Flickr.com

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the police in a Fourth Amendment case in which the arresting officer's "mistake of law" led him to conduct an erroneous traffic stop (and subsequent car search) based on a non-existent legal offense. Put simply, the officer in Heien v. North Carolina stopped a car for driving with a single busted brake light when it is not actually illegal to drive in that state with a single busted brake light. According to the Supreme Court, however, "because the officer's mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable, the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment."

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts compared his pro-police ruling to a hypothetical case in which an officer stops "a motorist for traveling alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, only to discover upon approaching the car that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat." According to Roberts, in that scenario, "the driver has not violated the law, but neither has the officer violated the Fourth Amendment." Roberts applied a similar line of reasoning to reach his conclusion in Heien.

But those two scenarios should not be treated equally. In the first one, the officer is mistaken about the facts, not about the law. Because it is actually a crime to drive alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, the officer's only error was in thinking that a legitimate violation of a verifiable statute had occurred. It therefore makes a certain amount of sense for the courts to view that mistake as a "reasonable" one.

But something very different occurred in Heien. Here, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her lone dissent, "police stopped Heien on suspicion of committing an offense that never actually existed." This was not a reasonable mistake about the facts on the ground—it was a mistake of law made by the police, the very same government officials whose central duty is the proper enforcement of the law.

"One is left to wonder," Sotomayor wrote in dissent, "why an innocent citizen should be made to shoulder the burden" of such encounters with law enforcement. Sotomayor was right to wonder. If ignorance of the law is no defense for the citizenry, why should ignorance of the law now get to serve as a shield for the police?

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  1. “If ignorance of the law is no defense for the citizenry, why should ignorance of the law now get to serve as a shield for the police?”

    So glad you asked!

    Because the courts are ambiguous about the exclusionary rule and want to find workarounds.

    And also because:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wvQ2n-tAzLw

  2. So is there some sort of bright line test to establish when it goes from an honest mistake about the law and into illegal stop?

    For instance, I see lots and lots of people being arrested by the police for photographing them. Every court has ruled against the practice. I’d bet that this ruling though will be cited in many future cases to prevent any judgement against the cops.

    1. So is there some sort of bright line test to establish when it goes from an honest mistake about the law and into illegal stop?

      No prob.

      If a cop makes the mistake, it is by definition a reasonable mistake.

    2. So is there some sort of bright line test to establish when it goes from an honest mistake about the law and into illegal stop?

      Yes. If the cop forgets to lie on his report about why he made the stop, then it becomes an illegal stop.

      1. If the cop forgets to lie on his report…

        Rookie mistake. Once they learn that they can lie with impunity, they never tell the truth again.

  3. “If ignorance of the law is no defense for the citizenry, why should ignorance of the law now get to serve as a shield for the police?”

    Everyone, all together now:

    “Because FYTW.”

    1. Thank you, Ranter, for saying what needed to be said.

  4. The Wise Latina uses actual legal and constitutional reasoning and not teh feelz.

    If buttercups buzz’d after the bee,
    If boats were on land, churches on sea,
    If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
    And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
    If the mamas sold their babies
    To the gypsies for half a crown;
    If summer were spring and the other way round,
    Then all the world would be upside down.

    1. When she was appointed to the Court, I thought for sure that with her background, she would be as reliable a pro-police and anti-4th amendment justice as there was. I couldn’t have been more wrong. If I could meet her, I’d actually apologize for my idiocy.

      1. I can’t recall the last Democrat nominee who would be as pro police as Alito, Roberts or Thomas. Scalia is pretty pro-police too, but his textualism guides him to rule against them in some 4th Amendment cases.

      2. Hanging your love on any jurist will only lead to disappointment.

  5. Coming from a state where it is illegal to operate with a broken tail light, I wouldn’t know if was not illegal in SC. But I wouldn’t consent to a car search either as probable cause to stop and issue a ticket is not probable cause to search the vehicle.

  6. Sotomayer has been one of the better justices on issues of police behavior. Iirc she’s the only justice that’s a former prosecutor, so perhaps she’s well aware from personal experience how the police can act against the criminally accused.

    I’ll also note that Kagan and Ginsburg filed a concurrence that would have at the least been better than the majority decision by the five conservatives and, of course, Breyer (the liberal justice who most consistently sides with the police, I’m guessing out of his general love of government). They said that instead of excusing a mistake of law that a reasonable patrolman might make, only mistakes of law that a reasonable judge might make should be excused.

  7. WASHINGTON STATE IS BETTER

    we cant search a car incident to arrest even in a perfectly valid stop and arrest.

    It’s a privacy violation under our state constitution. we don’t and cant do the fishing expedition searches of motor vehicles incident to arrest that occur in most states and are fine under FEDERAL LAW (also illegal under Hawaii law btw)

    Second of all, if a cop in WA state pulls a guy over (for example) because he thinks there is one person in a HOV lane and upon approaching, sees it is not THE case, there is a baby for example in the car, he NO LONGER HAS THE RIGHT TO DETAIN THE DRIVER.

    Again, this is established case law. If the Reasonable suspicion for ANY stop evaporates or is vitiated, the AUTHORITY to detain evaporates.

    Just like in WA state, unlike most states, if I detain a vehicle for an offense solely by the driver (eg. speeding), and the passenger wants to get out and leave – (assumng we aren’t on a limited access freeway or something), I MUST LET HIM LEAVE

    I have no authority to detain and if I ask him for ID, generally that will trigger a constructive terry stop and trigger fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine – iow evidence gets thrown out

    Passengers in a car can only be detained if there is suspicion in regards to them (like a terry of all the occupants as burg suspects or something, or they all dont have seatbelts or whatnot)

    We have privacy in our constitution

    so, it’s a MUCH higher standard than mere reasonableness

    booya WA!!!

    1. BOOYA OVERTIME FRAUD!!

    2. It’s established federal constitutional law that stopping a driver does not allow an officer to ask a passenger for ID absent the conditions for a valid Terry stop.

      Also, go fuck yourself.

  8. OT = De Blasio now decides “The People Doth Protest Too Much, Methinks

    “”It’s a time for everyone to put aside political debates, put aside protests, put aside all of the things we will talk about in due time,” de Blasio said in a speech to a charity with close ties to the New York Police Department. “Let’s comfort these families, let’s see them through these funerals. Then debate can begin again.”

    If people would only protest *when politicians want them to*!? They’d be so much more convenient.

  9. Ima say it again:

    Fuck tha police.

  10. “If ignorance of the law is no defense for the citizenry, why should ignorance of the law now get to serve as a shield for the police?”

    Fucking HELLO!

  11. It should be noted that the majority opinion did address the “ignorance of the law is no excuse” dichotomy, and did so in a matter that was wholly unconvincing and objectively idiotic.

    Finally, Heien and amici point to the well-known maxim, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and contend that it is fundamentally unfair to let police officers get away with mistakes of law when the citizenry is accorded no such leeway. Though this argument has a certain rhetorical appeal, it misconceives the implication of the maxim. The true symmetry is this: Just as an individual generally cannot escape criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law, so too the government cannot impose criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law. If the law required two working brake lights, Heien could not escape a ticket by claiming he reasonably thought he needed only one; if the law required only one, Sergeant Darisse could not issue a valid ticket by claiming he reasonably thought drivers needed two. But just because mistakes of law cannot justify either the imposition or the avoidance of criminal liability, it does not follow that they cannot justify an investigatory stop. And Heien is not appealing a brake-light ticket; he is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law.

    1. WTF kind of twisted bullshit logic is that?

      1. Eh, there’s a logic to it. The idea is that the burden for establishing probable cause is less than the burden for establishing criminal liability, and while mistake of law by the defendant or the prosecution will not erase or establish criminal liability that doesn’t reach to the lower burden of establishing probable cause.

        I think it’s the wrong question. The question is, is it reasonable to search someone for x based on the mistaken belief that y crime was committed, when in fact, it is not.

        A huge problem is that during the Warren Court the assumption was that, granted a bunch of exceptions, the Warrant clause meant that warrants were the way government needed to go if they wanted to search. The Rehnquist court chucked that making ‘reasonableness’ the touchstone for 4th Amendment law, and they saw ‘reasonableness’ in a very charitable way like ‘it’s a mistake but is it reasonable?’ instead of ‘the police have to establish a good reason here.’

        1. The 4th Amendment-based protections against State action the Warren and Berger Courts established/strengthened are all but gone. It’s a shame that they have not been actually overturned — giving people false hope — but instead have been chipped away bit by bit.

          Many people still believe not being told your Miranda rights means something. Ha.

        2. Yeah, the Court here is erasing the difference between a mistake of fact and mistake of law.

          Look at the boilerplate definition of probable cause:

          sufficient reason based upon known facts to believe a crime has been committed or that certain property is connected with a crime

          http://dictionary.law.com/Defa…..ected=1618

          Confusing a mistake of fact with a mistake of law is 1L stuff, the kind of thing that costs you a letter grade. And here our esteemed SCOTUS is reveling in their error.

        3. There’s no logic to it at all. The reason for the “ignorance of the law is no excuse” maxim is that ignorance of the law can always be pretended and is nearly impossible to disprove. That fact doesn’t change because you’re talking about a rights violation as opposed to a criminal act.

      2. WTF kind of twisted bullshit logic is that?

        “Drugs are bad, m’kay?”

        1. SF’d the link.

    2. Nice piece of ingenuity there – they basically are saying, any time a cop wants an investigatory stop, he gets it.

      Probable Cause is fully dead now.

    3. Some “true symmetry” that is.

    4. That’s a lot of words to say “Fuck you, that’s why”.

    5. so too the government cannot impose criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law

      bull fucking shit

      they do it ALL the time

  12. Why don’t they just overturn the exclusionary rule at this point? With this “reasonable mistake of the law” exemption, it is pretty much useless. There are thousands of laws which we may be in criminal violation of; “reasonable mistakes” of those laws are literally uncountable.

    Oh yeah, that’s right: because the Roberts Court has historically (and, IMO, cowardly) shied away from overturning precedent but instead chooses to tie itself into nonsensical contortions upholding but distinguishing precedent into meaningless rhetoric.

    1. Why don’t they just overturn the exclusionary rule at this point?

      They just did.

      1. The line of cases going back nearly 150 years are still technically in tact.

        Outright repealing something as important to most Americans’ conceive their relationship to the State as the exclusionary rule will not be done due to the public backlash.

        Instead, the Court buries the rule in tough-to-decipher legalese and “reasonable” (pun intended) arguments.

        1. Sorry for the grammar disaster in the second paragraph. Should be:

          Outright repealing something as important to most Americans’ conception of their…

        2. The end result is the same.

  13. This will surely improve cop/citizen relations. There won’t be more unreasonable searches, ultimately leading to violence and more outrage by the public.

  14. The analogy the court gives is wrong. As the article points out, that is a mistake of fact not law. The proper analogy is suppose a cop is pulling cars over in the HOV lane under the sincere but mistaken believe that such a violation is a moving violation when state law explicitly says that it is not, that you can only get an extra ticket for violating the HOV lane if you are pulled over for something else.

    In that case is the evidence of the two dead kids inadmissible? Maybe and even if it is, that doesn’t mean the guilty party would go free. First, there is the doctrine of inevitable discovery. If the dead kids were going to be found legally anyway, the evidence gets admitted. Second, even if the evidence of the bodies is inadmissible, there might be other evidence that is admissible that proves guilt.

  15. Second, maybe the person would go free. The court acts like that is such a downside that it can’t be contemplated. First, what are the chances of such a case ever actually occurring? I have never heard of a murder case where the entire conviction rests on evidence found in a stop where the cop illegally pulled the person over in conflict with the law. The court never has either. They are just pulling the most extreme shocking case imaginable out of their asses and then pretending that it is a real possibility. In contrast, what is a real possibility is cops using this ruling as an excuse not to know the law. After this ruling, a cop is well served not to know the law and pull people over for whatever reason he wants to do so. The only way the resulting evidence will ever be suppressed is if the cop admits to knowing the law and ignoring it, something no cop will ever do.

    This is a horrible decision.

    1. They’ll just come up with some standard boilerplate lie to add to every report involving a stop with a search that will magically make the stop “reasonable” even if it was completely illegal.

  16. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts compared his pro-police ruling to a hypothetical case in which an officer stops “a motorist for traveling alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, only to discover upon approaching the car that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat.” According to Roberts, in that scenario, “the driver has not violated the law, but neither has the officer violated the Fourth Amendment.”

    Well the difference between an issue of fact and an issue of law is pretty subtle, so we really shouldn’t expect a SUPREME COURT JUSTICE to be familiar with it.

    1. I know. Jeebus, that is embarrassing.

      A better example would be:

      A cop pulls over a car in the HOV lane with two (fully visible) people in it, under the mistaken belief that the minimum for HOV is three when it is actually two.

      Not such a good example now, is it, Chief Justice (if that’s even your real name)?

  17. Justice Sotomayor posed the following interesting question.

    “One is left to wonder,” Sotomayor wrote in dissent, “why an innocent citizen should be made to shoulder the burden” of such encounters with law enforcement. Sotomayor was right to wonder. If ignorance of the law is no defense for the citizenry, why should ignorance of the law now get to serve as a shield for the police?

    Why indeed?

  18. But those two scenarios should not be treated equally. In the first one, the officer is mistaken about the facts, not about the law.

    Damn. Roberts isn’t a very good lawyer. Or judge.

  19. The next case will have a cop pulling someone over for breathing.

    What?

    Breathing isn’t a crime?? Oh well, doesn’t matter, we’ll find something to charge you with.

  20. I’m not thrilled with even letting cops off on a mistake of fact. If you do that, anybody in the HOV can be pulled over at will, and if they challenge the stop the cop can claim he didn’t see the other people in the car. There is essentially no way for the motorist to disprove that.

    When you’re dealing with amendments that protect from government abuse, you have to assume the government is going to try to get away with abusing any exceptions you make.

  21. “If ignorance of the law is no defense for the citizenry, why should ignorance of the law now get to serve as a shield for the police?” Because in our system ‘laws’ are what the State uses to excuse murder, theft and kidnapping of its citizens. If, all of a sudden, ‘laws’ *protected* citizens from the state, the entire system would cease to function.

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