OT14…Let’s do this. Heien v. North Carolina and Happy Bday to Us!

5-cent explanation: If police mistakenly stop you for a traffic violation can they still use evidence taken during a search despite the error?

10-cent explanation: This is the first post and first case to kick off the October term 2014. Another year, another case involving law enforcement conduct during vehicle searches. Last year’s 4th Amendment case involved police searches of cell phones during minor traffic stops. In June of 2014 the Chief Justice said, bluntly, “Get a warrant.” Although this case doesn’t question a warrant challenge, it does involve a constitutional aspect of the 4th Amendment. Recall that the 4th Amendment protects one against unreasonable searches and seizures of their persons, places, or things. If police have reasonable suspicion of a driver they may stop the vehicle to check things out. The question in this case is whether the officer’s reasonable suspicion of the driver – who was stopped because he had one only working tail light – is enough to justify his stop and subsequent search of the vehicle.  

Officer Matt Darisse stopped Maynor Vasquez for the broken tail light. As it turns out, this is not illegal in North Carolina, where this case began. Odd? Yes. Having two working tail lights whilst driving at night seems like something that should be a law, or so Darisse assumed. Vasquez was pulled over by the officer and questioned, which was when Darisse discovered movement in the backseat of Vasquez’s car. Darisse then found Nicholas Heien hiding under a blanket in the back seat. In situations like this, police have the right to secure their safety and those in the vehicle by performing a search. Vasquez consented to the search and Darisse discovered 54 grams (almost 2 ounces) of cocaine in the vehicle.

Vasquez and Heien were obviously busted, there’s no question about that, and the situation sounds shady both with the hiding in the backseat and the discovery of drugs. But you have to remember that in 4th Amendment cases such as this one you can’t focus only on the result of the search – they can be the fruits of a poisoned tree in some cases. You have to walk backwards, step by step, to assess the constitutional exactness of everything the officer did. The very first step is what the Supreme Court will focus on in Heien.

When he first stopped Vasquez, Darisse didn’t know North Carolina law said a vehicle only needs to have one functioning lamp. That makes his stop a mistake. But the stop lead to questioning Vasquez, which lead to the discovery of Heien suspiciously hiding in the back seat, followed by the search, and, finally, the seizure of the drugs. If the stop was in fact unreasonable – Vasquez wasn’t breaking the law driving a vehicle with one working light – can all the evidence used against him and Heien be thrown out essentially awarding both men the greatest “get out of jail” card ever?

Yes, the North Carolina Court of Appeals said. “An officer’s mistaken belief that a defendant has committed a traffic violation is not an objectively reasonable justification for a traffic stop.” On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed and found in favor of the police officer. “So long as an officer’s mistake is reasonable, it may give rise to reasonable suspicion.”

This case is going to ask the Justices to decide whether a cop’s “I didn’t know it wasn’t a law” claim is reasonable therefore legitimizing the search and seized evidence. In defense of officer Darisse, we too were surprised by the one-light law and know officers are under intense pressure to know innumerable state and federal laws and execute them with precision. But ignorance of a law has never been an acceptable plea for defendants in the past. Why would such a claim by a cop, whose job it is to know and defend all the laws, be any different?  Side note, Jeff Fisher, the attorney who argued last year’s 4th Amendment cell phone search cases is also arguing this case for Heien.  Boss.

Teachers: Interested in using this case to host a moot court?  Look no farther than Street Law.  They put together all the materials (case summary, briefs, and amici) so you can let the students immerse themselves in the case while the Justices do the same.  Get it all here.

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Big week for us at SB! We’re celebrating our 1st birthday and kicking off the October Term 2014. Thanks for all the Tweets, retweets, followers, and support! Here’s to another great SCOTUS term.