SCOTUS decision in Heien v North Carolina

15 Dec

The Supreme Court has weighed in on a North Carolina case that pondered North Carolina’s law on working brake lights, a police officer’s mistaken interpretation of that law, and protection against unconstitutional searches.

The issue facing the court was whether police can use evidence found in a traffic stop if the police officer misunderstood the law behind the stop.

Yes, according to the Supreme Court. In an 8-1 decision, the high court sided with North Carolina’s highest court:  the officer’s mistaken misunderstanding of the North Carolina motor vehicle code was reasonable.

The case originated in 2009 when an officer pulled over a car with one broken brake light. After obtaining consent to search the car, the officer found a baggie of cocaine. Nicholas Heien pleaded guilty to possession when a trial judge refused to suppress the evidence based on the stop. A state appeals court overturned the conviction, based on the fact that having just one working brake light is not in violation of state law. Then North Carolina’s supreme court sided with the trial judge.

The nation’s highest court agreed: police can use evidence seized during a traffic stop even if it turns out the officers initially pulled a car over based on a misunderstanding of the law; the reasonable mistake gives rise to reasonable suspicion, and that, in turn, justifies the traffic stop. The 8-1 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts said that such a stop does not violate the Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches. Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented, saying the officer’s mistake,  “no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment.”

You can read the court’s decision here.

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