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Think you know the law about bad brake lights? Think again

The case of two inept drug smugglers has taken another surprising and far-reaching turn in the North Carolina courts. First, the Court of Appeals ruled that pretty much everyone has misunderstood the law about how many working brake lights a car needs. Now, in the same case, the Supreme Court has ruled that a traffic stop sparked by a bad brake light may be justifiable if the police officer made a “reasonable mistake” about what the law actually says.

In April 2009, Nicholas Heien and Maynor Vasquez were trafficking cocaine in a car with a broken brake light. When Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department pulled them over because of it, he said they appeared nervous and gave him different stories about where they were heading. He became suspicious that they might be carrying contraband, so he requested and received permission to search the car and found a sandwich bag full of cocaine.

Heien asked the trial court to suppress the evidence from the search on the grounds that it was an illegal seizure. He argued that state law actually only requires one brake light to be in working order, and since Vasquez’s car had one working light, Darisse had no lawful grounds to pull them over. The trial court denied the motion, but the Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with Heien’s reading of the brake light law and granted the motion to suppress, saying that because there were no indications that anyone in the car was breaking the law, the stop could not be justified.

On appeal, the state did not challenge the interpretation of the brake light law, meaning the Supreme Court was bound to accept it. Instead, the state challenged the court’s ruling that a police officer’s mistaken beliefs about the law could not be a reasonable basis for a stop. In a 4-3 decision that broke down along party lines, the Supreme Court held that so long as an officer’s mistake is reasonable, it may give rise to reasonable suspicion of law-breaking.

No expectation of perfection

Republican Justice Paul Newby, writing for the majority, said that while the North Carolina courts had never before been asked to resolve this question, it had been considered extensively at the federal level. After analyzing opinions in favor of each side, Newby favored the reasoning that Darisse’s search was justified, saying it was consistent with the Fourth Amendment’s primary command that law enforcement agents act reasonably.

“An officer may make a mistake, including a mistake of law, yet still act reasonably under the circumstances,” Newby wrote. “When an officer acts reasonably under the circumstances, he is not violating the Fourth Amendment. So long as the officer’s mistake of law is objectively reasonable, then, the Fourth Amendment would seem not to be violated. Accordingly, requiring an officer to be more than reasonable, mandating that he be perfect, would impose a greater burden than that required under the Fourth Amendment.”

Noting that when the stop occurred, no state court had ever interpreted the motor vehicle laws to require only one functioning brake light, Newby wrote that the court did not want to discourage police officers from conducting stops for perceived traffic violations. He argued that a contrary ruling would undermine enforcement of safety regulations “if we were to require our law enforcement officers to narrowly interpret our traffic safety statutes when deciding whether to conduct a stop for fear that a possible subsequent prosecution for the violation could be imperiled.”

“In fact,” Newby wrote, “it seems to us that most motorists would actually prefer to learn that a safety device on their vehicle is not functioning properly.”

The court’s three Democrats took issue with many points in the majority’s reasoning. Justice Robin Hudson, writing for the dissenters, lamented the state’s decision not to raise the interpretation of the brake light statute for review, calling it “the more appropriate course of action.” The dissenters said that choosing to decide the case on constitutional grounds was unnecessary and “opened a Pandora’s box.”

“The danger in adopting a new constitutional rule here is that this particular case seems so innocuous: Of course it is reasonable that an officer would pull over a vehicle for a malfunctioning brake light. But this new constitutional rule will also apply in the next case, when the officer acts based on a misreading of a less innocuous statute, or an incorrect memo or training program from the police department, or his or her previous law enforcement experience in a different state, or his or her belief in a nonexistent law,” Hudson wrote.

Hudson also criticized Newby’s characterization of the precedent from other jurisdictions. In his opinion, Newby contrasted two federal circuit decisions, one as an example of a court permitting an officer to form reasonable suspicion based on a mistake of law, and one as an example prohibiting it.

“Though the majority does not acknowledge so, it should be emphasized that the Eighth Circuit stands alone among the federal circuits on this issue. The First, Third, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and D.C. Circuits all apply some form of the rule that an officer’s mistake of law cannot be the basis for reasonable suspicion,” Hudson wrote.

Hudson also argued that the majority’s assertion that the court would be asking omniscience of police if it suppressed the search was overblown and disagreed that it would discourage officers from making stops, considering officers face no punishment for a stop based on a mistake of law. She said it would be unfair to hold citizens to the traditional rule that ignorance of the law is not an excuse for law-breaking while allowing officers to form reasonable suspicion based on a mistake of law.

Attorney Michele Goldman of Raleigh represented Heien. Assistant Attorney General Derrick C. Mertz represented the state.

Degrees of reasonableness

Goldman said while she wasn’t surprised by the court’s ruling, given the tenor of oral arguments, she was disappointed that the court had adopted the minority rule.

“What it does is, it injects subjectivity, the officer’s subjective legal reasoning, into the reasonable suspicion analysis,” Goldman said.

The decision still leaves unanswered questions. Jeff Welty, a professor with the UNC School of Government, said that one important question was whether the particular mistake made in this case, about the brake light statute, would still be a reasonable mistake of law in the future now that the courts have weighed in on it. Welty said he thought that police officers would not be able to claim that particular error as a reasonable mistake going forward.

But the bigger question, Welty, said was how courts would distinguish between reasonable a nd unreasonable mistakes of law. The court, he said, did not offer a lot of detail or criteria for future courts to use in reaching those decisions. For that reason, he found it difficult to gauge how large of an impact the decision would have for future cases.

The 29-page decision is State v. Heien (Lawyers Weekly No. 12-06-1214). The full text of the opinion is available online at


Follow David Donovan on Twitter @NCLWDonovan or email [email protected]




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