Pop quiz time:  Under North Carolina traffic law, how many functional brake lights is a motor vehicle required to have?

Answer: One. Pursuant to North Carolina General Statute 20-129(g), a car is only required to have one working stop lamp.

In 2009, Nicholas Heien was traveling in his car in Surry County, North Carolina and by all accounts abiding by our state’s traffic laws.  In particular, Mr. Heien’s vehicle had one functioning brake light on his car, which as we established above, means his brake light(s) were in compliance with 20-129(g).

In spite of this, Mr. Heien was stopped by officers in Surry County under the mistaken belief in their minds that his car was in violation of state law, due to a brake lamp not functioning properly.  An eventual search of his car revealed the presence of drugs and Mr. Heien was charged with felony drug possession.

Most people recognize that our Constitution prohibits officers from stopping motorists on a whim.  In general, officers must have some reasonable suspicion that some illegal activity is taking place in order to conduct a traffic stop.  In the Heien case, the North Carolina Court of appeals agreed with Mr. Heien and concluded that because officers stopped him based on their own misunderstanding of the law, the stop was invalid.  The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed that ruling and the United States Supreme Court agreed to review the case.

Our courts have allowed officers to conduct traffic stops based on their mistake of FACT.  In the context of the Heien case, had the officer mistakenly thought that both brake lights were out, when in fact they were both working, precedent would dictate that this mistake of FACT would not require suppression of the evidence.  But, the Heien case revolved around a mistake of LAW on the part of the officers.  Until this week, the United States Supreme Court had not allowed a mistake of law by officers to form the basis for a traffic stop.

On Monday, December 15, 2014 the court decided in an 8-1 decision that reasonable suspicion to conduct a traffic stop can in fact be based on an officer’s mistaken knowledge of the law.

Justice Sotomayor’s dissent speaks to my concerns with this holding.  For decades our courts have put a great deal of faith in traffic law enforcement officers when dealing with questions of fact.  They are, after all, the people with tremendous amounts of training in the areas of crime control, law enforcement and investigations.  Our courts have placed a great deal of deference in their testimony because they are generally the people in the best position to observe things that often form the basis of criminal offenses.  Justice Sotomayor states: “In other words, the leeway we afford officers’ factual assessments is rooted not only in our recognition that police officers operating in the field have to make quick decisions, see id., at 186, but also in our understanding that police officers have the expertise to ‘dra[w] inferences and mak[e] deductions . . . that might well elude an untrained person.’ United States v. Cortez, 449 U. S. 411, 418 (1981).”  When an officer is viewing a situation, he is trained to know that certain indicators make it probable that a crime is taking place.  Our courts allow him to take action based on those probabilities.

The same cannot be said about issues of LAW.  The law does not deal in probabilities in the same manner that factual determinations do. Again, Justice Sotomayor said it best in stating that, “the meaning of the law is not probabilistic in the same way that factual determinations are. Rather, the notion that the law is definite and knowable sits at the foundation of our legal system.” Cheek v. United States, 498 U. S. 192, 199 (1991).

SCOTUS’s holding, a reasonable mistake of law can form the basis for a search or seizure, contradicts that age-old axiom that the law is definite and knowable.  After Heien, I’m afraid, the law is what the stopping officer believes it to be.

If you have a traffic or criminal matter in Duplin or Sampson County, contact Ludlum Law Firm today for a free consultation.