Nicholas B. Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604, Supreme Court of the United States (December 14, 2014). The U.S. Supreme Court held that a reasonable mistake of law by police in the required number of working tail lights on an automobile in the context of investigatory detention and search can be reasonable suspicion of a crime and still valid under the 4th Amendment. The Officer thought two working brake lights were required by the statute but the Court had concluded that the express terms of the statute only called for one operational stop lamp.
The Fourth Amendment provides: “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.”
To justify a consent search incident to a traffic stop, officers need only “reasonable suspicion”—that is, “a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped” of breaking the law. Prado Navarette v. California, 572 U. S. ___, ___ (2014). To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them “fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.” Brinegar v. the United States, 338 U. S. 160, 176 (1949). According to the court, this would not only include reasonable mistakes in facts but also reasonable mistakes in the law. The Court reasoned that Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes—whether of fact or law— must be objectively reasonable. Further, the subjective understanding of the particular police officer involved is not even to be examined by the court. That means the State cannot defend an officer’s mistaken legal interpretation on the ground that the officer was unaware of or untrained in the law. And it means that an officer’s reliance on “an incorrect memo or training program from the police department” makes no difference to the analysis.
Further, the standard is higher than the current standard in qualified immunity defenses from suits seeking damages from government actors where qualified immunity doctrine protects “all but the incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.” So the standard is set somewhere between objectively reasonable and incompetent. The standard suggested by the concurring opinion which was not addressed in detail in the majority opinion was when the law at issue is “so doubtful in construction” that a reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s view. (Ordinary Reasonable Judge?) The concurring opinion concluded that only If the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer’s judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer’s decision is a reasonable mistake under the 4th Amendment. But if not, not. The statute must pose a “really difficult” or “very hard question of statutory interpretation” for it to be a reasonable mistake of law. The Court concluded that such cases will be “exceedingly rare” in an apparent attempt to limit the scope of the opinion.
-Author: George Creal