On December 15, 2014, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Heiein v. North Carolina. The Court held that an officer could reasonably stop someone to enforce a traffic law, even if it later turned out that the officer was wrong about the traffic law.
How is it legal for the police to stop you, when you aren’t actually violating the law? The Supreme Court unravels the pretzel.
Some background: In Heien, the police officer stopped the defendant’s vehicle because it had one defective brake light and one functioning brake light. The officer believed that North Carolina law required a vehicle to have two functioning brake lights. It turns out that North Carolina only requires a vehicle to have one functioning brake light, and thus the officer lacked a legal basis for the traffic stop. Once the officer made the traffic stop, he found cocaine in the Defendant’s possession.
Typically (and there are some important exceptions here), if an officer violates a person’s rights and thereby obtains evidence, that evidence is suppressed. If the police break the law, they can’t use what they find against you. It’s inadmissible. However, that rule is being eroded over time.
The majority opinion notes that the Fourth Amendment only prohibits “unreasonable searches and seizures.” The majority decided that an officer could make a “reasonable” mistake as to the law, and so long as the mistake was “objectively reasonable,” there was no reason to suppress the evidence. The question becomes what is “objectively reasonable.” The Court ruled that it was the Court’s job to decide which mistakes were objectively reasonable, and left it at that.
Only Justice Sotomayor dissented. Justice Sotomayor made several arguments. She noted that most people considered police seizures humiliating. If the police are not required to correctly understand the law, there is less value in a member of the public learning the law in order to obey the law and avoid a seizure. Further, this ruling puts the Courts in a peculiar position: it becomes the Court’s job to decide whether the officer’s view of the law was reasonable, and not whether the officer correctly applied the law. As such, the Courts will not say what the law is. Finally, and most importantly, Justice Sotomayor notes that over time the protections of the Fourth Amendment have diminished as the exceptions have expanded. This case creates one more exception to the protections of the Fourth Amendment.
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