An Officer’s Reasonable Mistake of Law and Recent Court of Appeals Ruling

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.

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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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Reasonable Mistakes and Reasonable Suspicion

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 … Read more