The first argued case in the new Supreme Court term will be Heien v. North Carolina, a Fourth Amendment case about whether a reasonable mistake of law can create cause for a Fourth Amendment search or seizure. I think the defendant has the better argument that the answer is no. In this post, Ill explain the case and why I think the defense should prevail.
I. The Facts, and A Brief History of Brake-Light Law
The facts of the case are simple. A North Carolina police officer stopped a car for having a broken right rear brake light. The stop led to a consent search, and the search led to the discovery of drugs in the car. So far it sounds like a pretty routine Fourth Amendment traffic stop case. But heres the twist: If you look closely at thetext of North Carolinas traffic laws, its at best unclear whetheritprohibits driving with one broken brake light.
A little bit of history is helpful here. Decades ago, it was common for cars to come equipped with only one brake light. The early brake lights often had STOP written on them,and unsurprisinglythey were known as stop lamps. At the time, it was common for the traffic laws to require cars to have only one stop lamp.
Thats antiquated now, of course. But a lot of state laws still have a residual form of this. In particular, many state laws require one working stop lamp for antique cars but two such stop lampsfor more modern cars. To get a flavor of this common practice, see the laws of Florida, California, Texas, New York, Michigan, Tennessee, the District of Columbia, or Ohio.
North Carolinas traffic law is different. The key statutory provision requires that modern cars have a stop lamp but has no such requirement for pre-1956 cars.Heres the language:
No person shall sell or operate on the highways of the State any motor vehicle, motorcycle or motor-driven cycle, manufactured after December 31, 1955, unless it shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle. The stop lamp shall display a red or amber light visible from a distance of not less than 100 feet to the rear in normal sunlight, and shall be actuated upon application of the service (foot) brake. The stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.
Violation of this law is a misdemeanor criminal offense, see N.C.G.S.A. 20-176.
Why require only one stop lamp for more modern cars and none for older cars? I have no idea. Its hard to know what the legislature was thinking. A few other states in the southern U.S. have traffic codes that also require only one stop lamp, perhaps just as a historical relic. See Alabamas code, for example, which dates back to 1927. Georgia, West Virginia, and South Carolina have similar language but add the additional requirement that all original equipment has to be working properly, which as a practical matter requires multiple working brake lights. See, e.g., Georgia 40-8-26; W. Va. Code Ann. 17C-15-18(a)(1); State v. Jihad, 553 S.E.2d 249 (S.C 2001) (interpreting South Carolinas brake light law). North Carolinas law appears to be somewhat unique. It has a provision that the originally-equipped tail lights have to be working (that is, the red lights that go on when the front headlights or parking lights are on), but it does not appear to apply that same standard to brake lights.
Ok, back to the case. At trial, Heien argued that the North Carolina traffic law did not prohibit driving with one broken brake light so long as the other brake light was working. After all, with one brake light out and the other working, the car did have a functioning stop lamp. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with Heiens reading of North Carolinas law. Under its decision, driving with one broken brake light is perfectly legal in North Carolina.