The United States Supreme Court in 2014 ruled in Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (affirming State v. Heien, 366 N.C. 271 (2012)), that an officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of law in making a stop or arrest is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Last week, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in State v. Eldridge (September 20, 2016), that officer’s mistake of law when making a stop of a vehicle was not objectively reasonable based on the facts in that case. The Eldridge ruling is the subject of this post. Continue reading
Tag Archives: mistake 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. Continue reading →
When a defendant introduces evidence at trial showing that the State has failed to prove some element of the crime, the strategy is sometimes described as a failure of proof or “negating” defense. Mistake of fact is one such negating defense. Mistake of fact offers a defense if it negates a mental state required to establish an element of the crime. State v. Breathette, ___ N.C. App. ___, 690 S.E.2d 1, 4 (2010). For example, mistake of fact is a defense to larceny if the defendant establishes that he or she took the property under a reasonable but mistaken belief that he or she was the lawful possessor of the property. There are numerous cases on point. One is State v. Lamson, 75 N.C. App. 132, 135-36 (1985), a burglary case in which the court held that the trial court erred by not giving an instruction on mistake of fact when there was evidence that the defendant thought he was entering a house where his friend was visiting. Another is State v. Walker, 35 N.C. App. 182, 186-87 (1978), in which the court held that the trial court erred by not giving an instruction on mistake of fact when the defendant and his son mistakenly abducted a child believed to be the defendant’s granddaughter.
There are, however, limitations on this defense. Most significantly, when the elements of the crime do not require the defendant to know the fact that he or she was mistaken about, mistake of fact is no defense. For example, because a defendant need not know the victim’s age for statutory rape, mistake as to the victim’s age is no defense to this crime. State v. Browning, 177 N.C. App. 487, 492-94 (2006). The same is true for indecent liberties with a child. Breathette, ___ N.C. App. ___, 690 S.E.2d at 4-6. However, mistake of fact can be a defense for some statutory sexual assault charges. For example, if the defendant is charged with aiding and abetting statutory rape, mistake of fact is a defense. This is so because aiding and abetting requires that the defendant knowingly aid the perpetrator in committing the offense. State v. Bowman, 188 N.C. App. 635, 647-50 (2008) (in an aiding and abetting statutory rape case, the trial court erred by failing to instruct as to mistake of fact; North Carolina does not recognize vicarious strict liability). Also, at least one case has held that if the defendant argues that a touching was accidental, mistake of fact may be a defense to a sexual assault on a child. State v. Connell, 127 N.C. App. 685, 690-91 (1997) (in an indecent liberties case in which the State presented only circumstantial evidence that the defendant was awake and intended to touch the child and the defendant’s evidence indicated that he thought he was touching the child’s mother, the trial court should have instructed the jury as to the mistake of fact).
Mistake of fact, which can be a valuable negating defense, should not be confused with mistake of the law. Mistake or ignorance of law, as a general rule, is no excuse. State v. Howard, 158 N.C. App. 226, 233 (2003); State v. Rogers, 68 N.C. App. 358, 385 (1984). Thus, a defendant charged with rape of a 15-year-old will not prevail on the defense that he didn’t know that having sex with a 15-year-old was a crime.
The court of appeals issued several opinions yesterday. Among the most interesting is State v. Hopper, a case that addresses when an officer’s mistaken beliefs can support an investigative stop.
The defendant in Hopper was driving on Piedmont Circle, a loop road in an apartment complex in Winston-Salem. It was raining heavily. An officer noticed that the defendant’s tail lights were not on, and concluded that the defendant was violating G.S. 20-129, which requires a vehicle’s tail lights to be on whenever the vehicle is on a public street and its windshield wipers are in use. The officer therefore stopped the defendant. During the stop, the officer noticed drugs and a gun, which led to criminal charges against the defendant.
The defendant moved to suppress, arguing that Piedmont Circle was not a public street and that the officer therefore lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, the defendant pled guilty and appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed. The appellate court assumed arguendo that Piedmont Circle was not a public street, but held that even if it wasn’t, the officer reasonably believed that it was, and that a reasonable mistake of fact can provide the reasonable suspicion necessary for a traffic stop.
The principle that a reasonable mistake of fact can provide reasonable suspicion appears to be uncontroversial. But a reasonable mistake of law cannot provide reasonable suspicion in North Carolina. State v. McLamb, 186 N.C. App. 124 (2007). (How to handle officers’ reasonable mistakes of law is controversial nationally. 38 Geo. L. J. Ann. Rev. Crim. Pro. 43, 48 (2009) (noting that “[t]he circuits have split on whether an officer’s mistaken belief that a traffic violation has occurred will support an investigatory stop if the mistake is one of law,” and collecting cases).)
So, was the mistake in Hopper really one of fact, or was it one of law? This issue received little or no attention from the court and from the parties, but McLamb provides an interesting comparison. The officer in that case believed that the speed limit on a particular road was 20 m.p.h., when it was actually 55 m.p.h. In Hopper, the officer believed that a particular road was a public street, though the court of appeals assumed arguendo that it was not. It may not be immediately obvious whether these are mistakes of law or fact, but it seems to me that whatever they are, they are the same thing. In other words, I don’t think that the assumed facts of Hopper can be distinguished from the facts of McLamb, which held that the officer’s mistake about the speed limit was one of law.
As it happens, I tend to think that both mistakes were mistakes of fact. But it seems to me that the defendant in Hopper could have trumpeted both the holding of McLamb and the statement in that case that a stop should not be upheld when an officer “stop[s] [a] vehicle based upon [his] subjective belief that traffic laws have been violated even where no such violation has, in fact, occurred.” (Internal quotation marks and citation omitted.) It certainly strikes me as odd that neither the opinion in Hopper, nor either party’s brief, even cites McLamb. Unless and until the state supreme court addresses officers’ reasonable mistakes, lawyers and judges may have trouble categorizing such mistakes, and so may have difficulty determining whether stops based on such mistakes should be upheld.