Heien v. North Carolina

Decision Date15 December 2014
Docket NumberNo. 13–604.,13–604.
Citation574 U.S. 54,190 L.Ed.2d 475,135 S.Ct. 530
Parties Nicholas Brady HEIEN, Petitioner v. NORTH CAROLINA.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Jeffrey L. Fisher, Stanford, CA, for Petitioner.

Rachel P. Kovner, for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the Respondent.

Michele Goldman, Raleigh, NC, Donald B. Ayer, Jones Day, Washington, DC, Jeffrey L. Fisher, Counsel of Record, Stanford Law School, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Stanford, CA, for Petitioner.

Roy Cooper, Attorney General of North Carolina, John F. Maddrey, Solicitor General of North Carolina, Robert C. Montgomery, Counsel of Record, Senior Deputy Attorney General, Derrick C. Mertz, Assistant Attorney General, North Carolina Department of Justice, Raleigh, NC, for Respondent.

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

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.


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, 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.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed. 214 N.C.App. 515, 714 S.E.2d 827 (2011). The initial stop was not valid, the court held, because driving with only one working brake light was not actually a violation of North Carolina law. The relevant provision of the vehicle code provides that a car must be

"equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle. The stop lamp shall display a red or amber light visible from a distance of not less than 100 feet to the rear in normal sunlight, and shall be actuated upon application of the service (foot) brake. The stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps." N.C. Gen.Stat. Ann. § 20–129(g) (2007).

Focusing on the statute's references to "a stop lamp" and "[t]he stop lamp" in the singular, the court concluded that a vehicle is required to have only one working brake light—which Heien's vehicle indisputably did. The justification for the stop was therefore "objectively unreasonable," and the stop violated the Fourth Amendment. 214 N.C.App., at 518–522, 714 S.E.2d, at 829–831.

The State appealed, and the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed. 366 N.C. 271, 737 S.E.2d 351. Noting that the State had chosen not to seek review of the Court of Appeals' interpretation of the vehicle code, the North Carolina Supreme Court assumed for purposes of its decision that the faulty brake light was not a violation. Id., at 275, 737 S.E.2d, at 354. But the court concluded that, for several reasons, Sergeant Darisse could have reasonably, even if mistakenly, read the vehicle code to require that both brake lights be in good working order. Most notably, a nearby code provision requires that "all originally equipped rear lamps" be functional. Id., at 282–283, 737 S.E.2d, at 358–359 (quoting N.C. Gen.Stat. Ann. § 20–129(d) ). Because Sergeant Darisse's mistaken understanding of the vehicle code was reasonable, the stop was valid. "An officer may make a mistake, including a mistake of law, yet still act reasonably under the circumstances.... [W]hen an officer acts reasonably under the circumstances, he is not violating the Fourth Amendment." 366 N.C. at 279, 737 S.E.2d, at 356.

The North Carolina Supreme Court remanded to the Court of Appeals to address Heien's other arguments for suppression (which are not at issue here). Id., at 283, 737 S.E.2d, at 359. The Court of Appeals rejected those arguments and affirmed the trial court's denial of his motion to suppress. 266/280 C.App. 741 S. E. 2d 1 (2013). The North Carolina Supreme Court affirmed in turn. 367 N.C. 163, 749 S.E.2d 278 (2013). We granted certiorari. 572 U.S. 1059 134 S.Ct. 1872, 188 L.Ed.2d 910 (2014) .


The Fourth Amendment provides:

"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."

A traffic stop for a suspected violation of law is a "seizure" of the occupants of the vehicle and therefore must be conducted in accordance with the Fourth Amendment. Brendlin v. California, 551 U.S. 249, 255–259, 127 S.Ct. 2400, 168 L.Ed.2d 132 (2007). All parties agree that to justify this type of seizure, officers need only "reasonable suspicion"—that is, "a particularized and objective basis for suspecting the particular person stopped" of breaking the law. Prado Navarette v. California, 572 U.S. 393/396 134 S.Ct. 1683, 1687–88, 188 L.Ed.2d 680 (2014) (internal quotation marks omitted). The question here is whether reasonable suspicion can rest on a mistaken understanding of the scope of a legal prohibition. We hold that it can.

As the text indicates and we have repeatedly affirmed, "the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’ " Riley v. California, 573 U.S. 134 S.Ct. 2473, 2482, 189 L.Ed.2d 430 (2014) (some internal quotation marks omitted). To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them "fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community's protection." Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 176, 69 S.Ct. 1302, 93 L.Ed. 1879 (1949). We have recognized that searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact can be reasonable. The warrantless search of a home, for instance, is reasonable if undertaken with the consent of a resident, and remains lawful when officers obtain the consent of someone who reasonably appears to be but is not in fact a resident. See Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 183–186, 110 S.Ct. 2793, 111 L.Ed.2d 148 (1990). By the same token, if officers with probable cause to arrest a suspect mistakenly arrest an individual matching the suspect's description, neither the seizure nor an accompanying search of the arrestee would be unlawful. See Hill v. California, 401 U.S. 797, 802–805, 91 S.Ct. 1106, 28 L.Ed.2d 484 (1971). The limit is that "the mistakes must be those of reasonable men." bRinegar,supra, at 176, 69 s.CT. 1302.

But 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...

To continue reading

Request your trial
558 cases
  • United States v. Weaver
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • September 15, 2020
    ...Court's repeated admonitions that the Fourth Amendment's touchstone is reasonableness, see, e.g., Heien v. North Carolina , 574 U.S. 54, 60, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014) (noting Court's repeated affirmation that "the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness’ "......
  • State v. Caronna
    • United States
    • New Jersey Superior Court — Appellate Division
    • November 3, 2021
    ...more broadly than the United States Supreme Court. See id. at 504, 532, 255 A.3d 1139 (declining to follow Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014), and rejecting a reasonable mistake of law exception under the New Jersey Constitution); State v. Novembrino......
  • State v. Arceo-Rojas, No. 119,266
    • United States
    • Kansas Court of Appeals
    • February 7, 2020
    ...Stopper made a "reasonable mistake" of law when he stopped Arceo-Rojas, based on the holding in Heien v. North Carolina , 574 U.S. 54, 66, 135 S. Ct. 530, 190 L. Ed. 2d 475 (2014). Was Extension of the Traffic Stop Lawful?Next, Arceo-Rojas argues that even if the initial traffic stop was la......
  • State v. Carter
    • United States
    • New Jersey Supreme Court
    • August 2, 2021
    ...made a reasonable mistake of law in interpreting section 33. Relying on the Supreme Court's ruling in Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014), the State submits that the stop and resulting conviction, based on a reasonable but mistaken interpretation of t......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
26 books & journal articles
  • Chapter 5 - §4. Evidence subject to exclusion under Fourth Amendment
    • United States
    • Full Court Press California Guide to Criminal Evidence Chapter 5 Exclusion of Evidence on Constitutional Grounds
    • Invalid date
    ...mistakes of law are not necessarily objectively unreasonable may apply to the exception in the future. See Heien v. North Carolina (2014) 574 U.S. 54, 65-67. 2. Attenuation exception. The attenuation exception to the exclusionary rule allows for illegally obtained evidence to be admitted wh......
  • Probable cause and reasonable suspicion: arrests, seizures, stops and frisks
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Suppressing Criminal Evidence Fourth amendment searches and seizures
    • April 1, 2022
    ...case. D. Mistake and Reasonable Suspicion §5:50 Governing Principles The United States Supreme Court held in Heien v. North Carolina , 574 U.S. 54 (2014), that when a police officer makes a stop based on a reasonable but mistaken view of the law, a court will uphold the stop. The Court note......
    • United States
    • Case Western Reserve Law Review Vol. 71 No. 1, September 2020
    • September 22, 2020
    ...V. California, 401 U.S. 797 (1971). (188.) Id. at 804. For other opinions using the phrase to similar effect, see Heien V. North Carolina, 574 U.S. 54, 60-61 (2014), Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 184-86 (1990), Maryland v. Garrison, 480 U.S. 79, 87-88 (1985), and New Jersey v. T.L.O.......
  • Probable cause and reasonable suspicion: arrests, seizures, stops and frisks
    • United States
    • James Publishing Practical Law Books Archive Suppressing Criminal Evidence - 2020 Contents
    • July 31, 2020
    ...Reserved] C. Mistake and Reasonable Suspicion §5:50 Governing Principles The United States Supreme Court held in Heien v. North Carolina , 574 U.S. 54 (2014), that when a police oficer makes a stop based on a reasonable but mistaken view of the law, a court will uphold the stop. The Court n......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT