The Supreme Court will open the October 2014 Term on Monday morning by hearing arguments that may bring back bad memories of convoluted law school discussions: may an officers reasonable mistake of law provide reasonable suspicion to stop a car under the Fourth Amendment? The Court has previously ruled that a reasonable mistake of fact will not violate the Fourth Amendment. Although Jeff Fisher, an experienced Supreme Court litigator, has presented some formidable arguments to rule for Heien, he may face an uphill battle persuading a majority of Justices that a reasonable, but mistaken, interpretation of state law should receive different constitutional treatment.
Facts: A surprising interpretation of state law.
Heien was driving a car which undisputedly had only one of its two rear brake lights working. Observing this, a member of a local sheriffs department stopped Heiens car, ultimately finding cocaine in it. Along with charging Heien with cocaine trafficking, the officer cited Heien for a non-working brake light, and the state trial court agreed that the stop was valid based on this observed traffic violation. Heien then pled guilty conditionally, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his suppression motion.
But on what basis could a court suppress? Well, in a decision later described by even the dissenting North Carolina justices as surprising, the state court of appeals ruled that, because the antiquated North Carolina statute requires only a stop lamp and one of Heiens brake lights had in fact been working, the traffic stop was invalid. [A]n officers mistaken belief that a defendant has committed a traffic violation is not, said the appellate court, an objectively reasonable justification for a traffic stop.
Granting discretionary review, the North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed. It noted that, although one part of the state law required only a stop lamp, another required all rear lamps to be in working order. Thus, the state supreme court ruled, even assuming that the appellate courts statutory interpretation was correct, the officers mistake of law was objectively reasonable, and a reasonable mistake of law can provide the reasonable suspicion needed to stop a car under Terry v. Ohio. The Court also emphasized societys interest in keeping its roads safe. (Heien contends that the statute should define what the legislature thinks is safe, not officers who misinterpret it.)
Heiens petition for certiorari noted that various state and federal courts have split on the general question whether reasonable mistakes of law can support Fourth Amendment intrusions (with the North Carolina Supreme Court having adopted the minority view). On Monday, the Justices at least five of whom are former law professors will bat this ephemeral question around, hypotheticals abounding, in the highest classroom in the land.
Ideology and amicus briefs
Along with merits briefs from Heien and North Carolina (which will be represented by Deputy Attorney General Robert Montgomery at oral argument), the federal government will also participate in the argument (represented by Assistant to the Solicitor General Rachel Kovner) as an amicus. Six other amicus briefs have been filed, including one on behalf of nineteen states and the District of Columbia supporting North Carolinas view, and one filed by among others the Gun Owners Foundation in support of Heien. Ideology does not, apparently, forecast the preferred result on the surprisingly unsettled constitutional question: the Gun Owners Foundation brief argues, for example, that the Fourth Amendment . . . cannot be diminished by modern judges who view traffic safety [as] more important than property rights.
The parties arguments
Conceding that the Court has previously ruled that what is generally demanded of the many factual determinations regularly made by law enforcement is not that they always be correct, but that they always be reasonable, Heien argues that mistakes of law should be (and have always been) treated differently. He argues (and both North Carolina and the federal government appear to concede) that the common law has always presumed that officers know the law, so that officers, for example, have long been liable for trespass even if they reasonably rely on an incorrect interpretation of a statute. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, argues Heien.