__ U.S. __ (2014), 13-604, Heien v. North Carolina

Docket Nº13-604
Citation__ U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475, 83 U.S.L.W. 4021, 25 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 20
Opinion JudgeROBERTS CHIEF JUSTICE.
Party NameNICHOLAS BRADY HEIEN, PETITIONER v. NORTH CAROLINA
AttorneyJeffrey L. Fisher argued the cause for petitioner. Robert C. Montgomery argued the cause for respondent. Rachel P. Kovner argued the cause for United States, as amicus curie.
Judge PanelROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion. JUSTICE KAGAN, with whom JUSTICE GINSBURG joins, ...
Case DateDecember 15, 2014
CourtUnited States Supreme Court

Page __

__ U.S. __ (2014)

135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475, 83 U.S.L.W. 4021, 25 Fla. L. Weekly Fed. S 20

NICHOLAS BRADY HEIEN, PETITIONER

v.

NORTH CAROLINA

No. 13-604

United States Supreme Court

December 15, 2014

Argued October 6, 2014.

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF NORTH CAROLINA

Affirmed.

SYLLABUS

Following a suspicious vehicle, Sergeant Matt Darisse noticed that only one of the vehicle's brake lights was working and pulled the driver over. While issuing a warning ticket for the broken brake light, Darisse became suspicious of the actions of the two occupants and their answers to his questions. Petitioner Nicholas Brady Heien, the car's owner, gave Darisse consent to search the vehicle. Darisse found cocaine, and Heien was arrested and charged with attempted trafficking. The trial court denied Heien's motion to suppress the seized evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, concluding that the vehicle's faulty brake light gave Darisse reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the relevant code provision, which requires that a car be " equipped with a stop lamp," N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-129(g), requires only a single lamp--which Heien's vehicle had--and therefore the justification for the stop was objectively unreasonable. Reversing in turn, the State Supreme Court held that, even assuming no violation of the state law had occurred, Darisse's mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable, and thus the stop was valid.

Held:

Because Darisse's mistake of law was reasonable, there was reasonable suspicion justifying the stop under the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 4-13.

(a) The Fourth Amendment requires government officials to act reasonably, not perfectly, and gives those officials " fair leeway for enforcing the law," Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 176, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 93 L.Ed. 1879. Searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact may be reasonable. See, e.g., Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 183-186, 110 S.Ct. 2793, 111 L.Ed.2d 148. The limiting factor is that " the mistakes must be those of reasonable men." Brinegar, supra, at 176, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 93 L.Ed. 1879. Mistakes of law are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion, which arises from an understanding of both the facts and the relevant law. Whether an officer is reasonably mistaken about the one or the other, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law. And neither the Fourth Amendment's text nor this Court's precedents offer any reason why that result should not be acceptable when reached by a reasonable mistake of law.

More than two centuries ago, this Court held that reasonable mistakes of law, like those of fact, could justify a certificate of probable cause. United States v. Riddle, 9 U.S. 311, 5 Cranch 311, 313, 3 L.Ed. 110. That holding was reiterated in numerous 19th-century decisions. Although Riddle [135 S.Ct. 533] was not a Fourth Amendment case, it explained the concept of probable cause, which this Court has said carried the same " fixed and well known meaning" in the Fourth Amendment, Brinegar, supra, at 175, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 93 L.Ed. 1879, and n. 14, and no subsequent decision of this Court has undermined that understanding. The contrary conclusion would be hard to reconcile with the more recent precedent of Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, 99 S.Ct. 2627, 61 L.Ed.2d 343, where the Court, addressing the validity of an arrest made under a criminal law later declared unconstitutional, held that the officers' reasonable assumption that the law was valid gave them " abundant probable cause" to make the arrest, id., at 37, 99 S.Ct. 2627, 61 L.Ed.2d 343. Heien attempts to recast DeFillippo as a case solely about the exclusionary rule, not the Fourth Amendment itself, but DeFillippo 's express holding is that the arrest was constitutionally valid because the officers had probable cause. See id., at 40, 99 S.Ct. 2627, 61 L.Ed.2d 343. Heien misplaces his reliance on cases such as Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 2419, 180 L.Ed.2d 285, where any consideration of reasonableness was limited to the separate matter of remedy, not whether there was a Fourth Amendment violation in the first place.

Heien contends that the rationale that permits reasonable errors of fact does not extend to reasonable errors of law, arguing that officers in the field deserve a margin of error when making factual assessments on the fly. An officer may, however, also be suddenly confronted with a situation requiring application of an unclear statute. This Court's holding does not discourage officers from learning the law. Because the Fourth Amendment tolerates only objectively reasonable mistakes, cf. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813, 116 S.Ct. 1769, 135 L.Ed.2d 89, an officer can gain no advantage through poor study. Finally, while the maxim " Ignorance of the law is no excuse" correctly implies that the State cannot impose punishment based on a mistake of law, it does not mean a reasonable mistake of law cannot justify an investigatory stop. Pp. 4-12.

(b) There is little difficulty in concluding that Officer Darisse's error of law was reasonable. The North Carolina vehicle code that requires " a stop lamp" also provides that the lamp " may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps," N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-129(g), and that " all originally equipped rear lamps" must be " in good working order," § 20-129(d). Although the State Court of Appeals held that " rear lamps" do not include brake lights, the word " other," coupled with the lack of state-court precedent interpreting the provision, made it objectively reasonable to think that a faulty brake light constituted a violation. Pp. 12-13.

367 N.C. 163, 749 S.E.2d 278, affirmed.

Jeffrey L. Fisher argued the cause for petitioner.

Robert C. Montgomery argued the cause for respondent.

Rachel P. Kovner argued the cause for United States, as amicus curie.

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, KENNEDY, THOMAS, GINSBURG, BREYER, ALITO, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

OPINION

[135 S.Ct. 534] ROBERTS CHIEF JUSTICE.

The Fourth Amendment prohibits " unreasonable searches and seizures." Under this standard, a search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action includes a reasonable factual mistake. An officer might, for example, stop a motorist for traveling alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, only to discover upon approaching the car that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat. The driver has not violated the law, but neither has the officer violated the Fourth Amendment.

But what if the police officer's reasonable mistake is not one of fact but of law? In this case, an officer stopped a vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out, but a court later determined that a single working brake light was all the law required. The question presented is whether such a mistake of law can nonetheless give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment. We hold that it can. Because the officer's mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable, the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.

I

On the morning of April 29, 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff's Department sat in his patrol car near Dobson, North Carolina, observing northbound traffic on Interstate 77. Shortly before 8 a.m., a Ford Escort passed by. Darisse thought the driver looked " very stiff and nervous," so he pulled onto the interstate and began following the Escort. A few miles down the road, the Escort braked as it approached a slower vehicle, but only the left brake light came on. Noting the faulty right brake light, Darisse activated his vehicle's lights and pulled the Escort over. App. 4-7, 15-16.

Two men were in the car: Maynor Javier Vasquez sat behind the wheel, and petitioner Nicholas Brady Heien lay across the rear seat. Sergeant Darisse explained to Vasquez that as long as his license and registration checked out, he would receive only a warning ticket for the broken brake light. A records check revealed no problems with the documents, and Darisse gave Vasquez the warning ticket. But Darisse had become suspicious during the course of the stop--Vasquez appeared nervous, Heien remained lying down the entire time, and the two gave inconsistent answers about their destination. Darisse asked Vasquez if he would be willing to answer some questions. Vasquez assented, and Darisse asked whether the men were transporting various types of contraband. Told no, Darisse asked whether he could search the Escort. Vasquez said he had no objection, but told Darisse he should ask Heien, because Heien owned the car. Heien gave his consent, and Darisse, aided by a fellow officer who had since arrived, began a thorough search of the vehicle. In the side compartment of a duffle bag, Darisse found a sandwich bag containing cocaine. The officers arrested both men. 366 N.C. 271, 272-273, [135 S.Ct. 535] 737 S.E.2d 351, 352-353 (2012); App. 5-6, 25, 37.

The State charged Heien with attempted trafficking in cocaine. Heien moved to suppress the evidence seized from the car, contending that the stop and search had violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. After a hearing at which both officers testified and the State played a video recording of the stop, the trial court denied the suppression motion, concluding that the faulty brake light had given Sergeant Darisse reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop, and that Heien's subsequent consent to the search was valid. Heien pleaded guilty but reserved his right to appeal the suppression decision. App. 1, 7-10, 12, 29, 43-44.

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701 practice notes
  • 299 So.3d 336 (Ala.Crim.App. 2020), CR-18-0233, Berry v. State
    • United States
    • Alabama Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • January 17, 2020
    ...2482, 189 L.Ed.2d 430 (2014) (some internal quotation marks omitted)." Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 60, 135 S.Ct. 530, 536, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014). Thus, even if we agreed with Berry's reading of § 15-10-3(a)(6), Lt. Raiti's actions were certainly ......
  • Perez v. State, 012716 TXCA8, 08-13-00024-CR
    • United States
    • Texas Court of Appeals of Texas
    • January 27, 2016
    ...in two opinions: Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 131 S.Ct. 2419, 180 L.Ed.2d 285 (2011) and Heien v. North Carolina, ___U.S.___, 135 S.Ct. 530, 539, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014). From these cases, we discern two distinct threads to the good faith mistake of law exception. Davis addresses a ......
  • 74 M.J. 230 (U.S.Armed forces 2015), 15-0029, United States v. Keefauver
    • United States
    • Federal Cases Military Appeals
    • June 12, 2015
    ...procedure." While an officer's mistake of law may sometimes bear on a potential Fourth Amendment violation, Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014), that is not the case here. " The Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes . . ......
  • 965 F.3d 313 (4th Cir. 2020), 18-4233, United States v. Curry
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • July 15, 2020
    ...J.A. 257. But the Fourth Amendment requires reasonableness — not perfection. See Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 60, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014) ("To be reasonable is not to be perfect ..."). Certainty about who will pass along a particular......
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685 cases
  • 299 So.3d 336 (Ala.Crim.App. 2020), CR-18-0233, Berry v. State
    • United States
    • Alabama Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals
    • January 17, 2020
    ...2482, 189 L.Ed.2d 430 (2014) (some internal quotation marks omitted)." Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 60, 135 S.Ct. 530, 536, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014). Thus, even if we agreed with Berry's reading of § 15-10-3(a)(6), Lt. Raiti's actions were certainly ......
  • Perez v. State, 012716 TXCA8, 08-13-00024-CR
    • United States
    • Texas Court of Appeals of Texas
    • January 27, 2016
    ...in two opinions: Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. 229, 131 S.Ct. 2419, 180 L.Ed.2d 285 (2011) and Heien v. North Carolina, ___U.S.___, 135 S.Ct. 530, 539, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014). From these cases, we discern two distinct threads to the good faith mistake of law exception. Davis addresses a ......
  • 74 M.J. 230 (U.S.Armed forces 2015), 15-0029, United States v. Keefauver
    • United States
    • Federal Cases Military Appeals
    • June 12, 2015
    ...procedure." While an officer's mistake of law may sometimes bear on a potential Fourth Amendment violation, Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014), that is not the case here. " The Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes . . ......
  • 965 F.3d 313 (4th Cir. 2020), 18-4233, United States v. Curry
    • United States
    • Federal Cases United States Courts of Appeals Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
    • July 15, 2020
    ...J.A. 257. But the Fourth Amendment requires reasonableness — not perfection. See Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 60, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014) ("To be reasonable is not to be perfect ..."). Certainty about who will pass along a particular......
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17 books & journal articles
  • Caught in the crosshairs: developing a Fourth Amendment framework for financial warfare.
    • United States
    • Stanford Law Review Vol. 68 Nbr. 3, March 2016
    • March 1, 2016
    ...347,357 (1967) (footnote omitted). (109.) United States v. Place, 462 U.S. 696,701 (1983). (110.) See, e.g., Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530, 536 (2014) ("As the text indicates and we have repeatedly affirmed, 'the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness.'......
  • The extended Traffic stop, 0715 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, July 2015, #19
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    • South Carolina Bar Journal Nbr. 2015, January 2015
    • July 1, 2015
    ...of vehicle stop cases in general, See Criminal Procedure For South Carolina Practitioners § 16.B. [97] See Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530, 540 (2014) (upholding arrest for drugs uncovered during traffic stop that was initiated under the mistaken suspicion that having one of two bra......
  • Reliance on nonenforcement.
    • United States
    • William and Mary Law Review Vol. 58 Nbr. 3, February 2017
    • February 1, 2017
    ...guilty" because "[t]he familiar maxim 'ignorance of the law is no excuse' typically holds true"); Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530, 540 (2014) ("[A]n individual generally cannot escape criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law."). (37.) ......
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    • Case Western Reserve Law Review Vol. 69 Nbr. 3, March 2019
    • March 22, 2019
    ...is arguably even broader than written because mistakes of law by police officers will typically be forgiven. See Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014) (holding that stop was supported by reasonable suspicion even though the officer made a "reasonable" mistake of law under......
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