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United States Supreme Court Rules that Reasonable Suspicion May Be Based on Reasonable Mistakes of Law

Published December 22nd, 2014

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 “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 “he stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or moreother rear lamps.” 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,” 20–129(d), arguably indicating that if a vehicle has multiple “stop lamp,” 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 the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context 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 aboutHeien 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.