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.

The Court affirmed the state supreme court. The opinion is here. Addressing the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures, Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority that “[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials.” At another point in the opinion, the Chief Justice offered an example: if an officer sees a motorist, apparently alone, in a High Occupancy Vehicle lane, the officer may stop the vehicle. Even if it turns out that two small children are sleeping, slumped over in the back seat, so that the vehicle was entitled to be in the lane, the officer’s factual mistake was reasonable and the stop would not violate the Fourth Amendment.

The officer in the Heien case made a mistake of law by misinterpreting the brake light statute, not a mistake of fact. But the Court reasoned that

reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer’s understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law. The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground. Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not what was thought, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law. There is no reason, under the text of the Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why this same result should be acceptable when reached by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but not when reached by way of a similarly reasonable mistake of law.

The Court stated that this result was consistent with “a number of 19th-century decisions” of the Court. But it also cited Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U. S. 31 (1979), where it ruled that an arrest made under a law that was later declared unconstitutional was nonetheless supported by probable cause at the time it was made. And it rejected the suggestion that its holding would discourage officers from learning the law, emphasizing that any mistake of law must be reasonable and that an officer’s subjective ignorance of the law is irrelevant to that determination.

Applying its principles to the facts of the case, the Court had

little difficulty concluding that the officer’s error of law was reasonable. Although the . . . statute at issue refers to “a stop lamp,” suggesting the need for only a single working brake light, it also provides that “[t]he stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.” [G.S.] 20–129(g) (emphasis added). The use of “other” suggests to the everyday reader of English that a “stop lamp” is a type of “rear lamp.” And another subsection of the same provision requires that vehicles “have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order,” [G.S.] 20–129(d), arguably indicating that if a vehicle has multiple “stop lamp[s],” all must be functional.

Thus, the stop was consistent with the Fourth Amendment.

Justice Kagan wrote a concurrence that was joined by Justice Ginsburg. It mainly focused on limiting the concept of a reasonable mistake of law, which it defined as involving a “genuinely ambiguous” statute, i.e., one that reasonable judges might interpret differently.

Justice Sotomayor dissented alone. She noted that a substantial majority of the lower courts had adopted the opposite rule, and argued that the Court’s holding “further erod[ed] the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context [traffic stops] where that protection has already been worn down.”

The practical significance of the case remains to be seen. The court of appeals’ interpretation of the brake light statute remains authoritative, so I doubt that a stop for one burned-out brake light would involve, at this point, a reasonable mistake of law. (But check out this interesting post about Heien by Professor Orin Kerr, asking in part, “how much law does a reasonable police officer know?”) Of course, other reasonable mistakes may still be out there, waiting to be made.

9 thoughts on “United States Supreme Court Rules that Reasonable Suspicion May Be Based on Reasonable Mistakes of Law”

  1. I find that most police have less respect for the law than most people that are not police. They tend to think they are above the law. They say it’s a mistake but most time they know what they are doing is not right.and they are let get away with it.

  2. I agree with the dissent. Just as ignorance of the law is not a deffense to most crimes, ignorance of the law should not excuse constitutional violations. This decision opens wide the door for pretense stops and other violations of the 4th amendment. The majority assumes that all officers operate in good faith in all situations.The entire case reminds me of the movie scene where when asked why he was being stopped the officer says “broken tail light.” The motorist replies that he does not have a broken tail light. Whereupon, the officer pulls out his night stick and breaks the lamp.

  3. Are we to glean that an officer is only held to a “reasonable man’s” mistake of the law or a “reasonable officer’s” mistake of law? From my experience, the average reasonable person makes mistakes of the law all the time. What’s to stop this from becoming a situation where the state argues reasonable mistake of the law every time an officer makes an illegal stop – benign or not? Hopefully trial courts hold officers to a higher standard than the SCOTUS.

  4. This whole controversy could have been avoided had it been clearly established at trial that all brake lights must be functional. While the State prevailed in this case, it remains in a precarious position regarding traffic stops in which one brake light is working.

  5. Good decision by the US Supreme Court, but it really does not change much. Some will cry and complain that police can use ignorance of the law to claim it was a reasonable mistake justifying a stop, but in reality these type of cases will be rare. Most statutes especially motor vehicle law is very clear and easy to understand. This will only impact cases of statutes that are ripe for different interpretations from reasonable legal minds which will be rare.

    Personally although insignificant and not necessary, I like the fact that the US Supreme addressed something that our Supreme did not address in regards to the decision from our court of appeals on this case. As the state argued in the first appeal, 20-129(d) requires all originally equipped rear lamps to be in working order and being that stop lamps are incorporated with the other rear lamps it only makes sense to believe that the stop lamps must be in working order as well.

    I am also puzzled as to why years have gone by since the infamous Heien decision and the General Assembly has yet to amend 20-129(g) to get rid of the ridiculous singular brake light reference. I can’t imagine any legislator would be opposed to requiring all brake lights to work. I mean for crying out loud the NC Court of Appeals pretty much said the General Assembly should change the law after they made the decision. The Court of Appeals back in 2011 said this in their opinion, “The statute at issue having been enacted several decades ago, retains an antiquated
    definition of a stop lamp, not reflecting actual vehicle equipment now included in most automobiles. We are well aware that the role of our courts is to adjudicate the laws as enacted
    by the General Assembly, and only the General Assembly, as our State’s policy-maker, can modify and update this outdated statutory language.”

    • Well said. I am also surprised (no, not really, actually…) that our state government has failed to correct this legislation. It seems like it wouldn’t even take a full day of work to just have someone say “hey, let’s change this statute to say ‘all brake lights’ okay?”

      I know on the original post about this case from a few years ago people were fairly adamant that the case should be dismissed because the officer didn’t know the exact letter of the law, but I feel that, as you’re saying, this is a very rare event. In this particular case law enforcement, and the courts, had been behaving for YEARS as the “spirit” of the law intends, that all brake lights be in operating order, rather than as the “letter” of the law says, which specified “a” brake light. It’s hard to find fault with an officer whose actions reflect years of jurisprudence and training.

      If I was a cop who had been trained by senior officers who have done things a certain way for years, let’s say stopping cars for entering an intersection while the light is yellow, and charging them for running a red light, and the courts had been saying that was a good stop and finding defendants responsible for that violation, why would I, as a cop who is basing this decision off years of prior experience from police and the courts, think to myself suddenly that it was wrong? Clearly the letter of the law says it’s not a violation when you really look at it, but if it’s based on years of judicial precedent it’s hard to fault the officer for this stop.

      I’m glad it was clarified by the supreme court that the stop was still reasonable since at the time there was a commonly held belief (not just by police, but by most citizens from my conversations with people) that all brake lights were required to be functioning.

      Side note: While I’m hopeful the legislature addresses this issue, I’m rather glad they haven’t yet since our inspection laws allow for the “third” brake light to not be in working order and mine has been broken for several years now thanks to poor design implementation by Toyota… 😀

    • Im sorry but to me it is not the statute that should be changed but rather the level of officer education regarding what is and is not a violation of law. Officer education would go a long way to prevent some of the abuse of the system by officers whose primary objective is not vehicle safety. The burned out brake or license plate light is merely used as a pretext for an otherwise unlawful stop , to which the leo then determines if he will simply give out a warning or attempt to further violate individual rights and freedoms based upon little more then his opinion of the subject being a criminal or not.

  6. This cost me a traffic court case… The officer was mistaken in pulling me over and during the stop discovered that I hadn’t changed my address after moving (within the 10 days required by law) due to technical difficulties at the DMV website. The citing officer dropped the traffic violation (due to his mistake in law), but added the change of address violation. The judge held that while I had not broken traffic law, the result of the subsequent search was admissible. Also – since I had wasted the court’s time to question the constitutionality of the stop, I was not entitled to have the charge dropped with evidence of correction – which I had.

    The truth is that you can be stopped for anything now – since anything falls under a “minor” mistake in fact, or mistake in law. So much for probable cause.


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