United States Supreme Court Rules that Reasonable Suspicion May Be Based on Reasonable Mistakes of Law

Shea blogged here about State v. Heien, the case in which the court of appeals ruled that having one burned-out brake light was not a violation of G.S. 20-129 and so did not support a vehicle stop. (The stop led to a consent search of the defendant’s vehicle, which led to the discovery of drugs and to drug trafficking charges.) The prosecution sought review in the state supreme court. That court assumed that the court of appeals was correct about the scope of the statute but determined (1) that an officer might reasonably think otherwise, given ambiguities in the statute, and (2) that reasonable suspicion may be based on a reasonable mistake of law. Conclusion (2) was the subject of a split of authority across the country, so the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the case. It issued its opinion yesterday.

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Is a Burned Out Brake Light a Basis for a Stop?

We’ll start with a pop quiz:

A police officer sees that the right brake light of a vehicle fails to illuminate when the driver applies brakes while driving down a street in North Carolina. The left brake light works. Does the officer’s observation of the malfunctioning right brake light provide reasonable suspicion that a violation of the state’s traffic laws has occurred, thus justifying a stop of the vehicle?

  1. Yes.  A stop of the vehicle based on this observation is constitutional.
  2. No.  A stop of the vehicle based on this observation is unconstitutional.

So as not to spoil the surprise, the answer appears after a page break.  First, some background.

G.S. 20-129(g) sets forth the requirements for brake lights—termed “stop lamps” under the statute—on vehicles operated on North Carolina roads. Any motor vehicle, motorcycle, or motor-driven cycle manufactured after December 31, 1955 that is operated on street or highway in North Carolina must be “equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle.” The stop lamp must display a red or amber light visible from at least 100 feet to the rear in normal sunlight.  It may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.

Other provisions of G.S. 20-129 set forth the requirements for lighted “rear lamps” for vehicles. G.S. 20-129(d) requires that every motor vehicle, and every trailer or semitrailer attached to a motor vehicle and every vehicle drawn at the end of a combination of vehicles must “have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order, which lamps shall exhibit a red light plainly visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the rear of such vehicle.”

So, every motor vehicle must have one working brake light pursuant to G.S. 20-129(g). And all of a vehicle’s “rear lamps” must be in good working order pursuant to G.S. 20-129(d). Does this mean that if a vehicle is equipped with more than one brake light, all of them must work? Find out after the jump.

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