The brake light case brought out a bit of whimsy from Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. as he summarized the Supreme Court’s decision from the bench last week [Dec. 15]. Most people, Roberts surmised, would be surprised to learn that you only need one brake light in North Carolina “even if you are from North Carolina.”
The real issue in Heien v. North Carolina, however, was not brake lights, but the power that police are to be given under the law. And in a year when police conduct in the killing of civilians was a major national issue, the Supreme Court chose to give police more room for mistakes instead of stronger incentives to strictly follow the law.
By an 8-1 vote, the court held that a police officer can stop someone for violating a non-law and use any evidence found in a subsequent search for a later prosecution as long as the officer’s mistake about the law was a reasonable one. In a sharp dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued that a police officer’s actions in such an instance should be judged based on “the actual state of the law,” not the officer’s mistaken understanding.
The case began as a mundane traffic stop on Interstate 77 in Surry County, N.C., on the morning of April 29, 2009. Nicholas Heien was lying in the back seat of his car with friend, Maynor Javier Vasquez, driving. Patrolling the highway, Sgt. Matt Darisse, a Surry County sheriff’s deputy, thought Vasquez appeared stiff and nervous, decided to follow the car, and eventually pulled the car over after noticing one of the brake lights not working.
After checking the registration, Darisse was about to let the men off with a warning, but he became suspicious when the two men gave inconsistent answers about their destination. Darisse asked to search the vehicle; the two men agreed; and Darisse found a baggie of cocaine in the side compartment of a duffle bag. Heien eventually pleaded guilty to attempted trafficking, but reserved the right to appeal on Fourth Amendment grounds.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits not only an unreasonable search but also an unreasonable seizure. Despite the depictions on cop shows, police generally have no power to stop you on the street, or on the highway, unless they have reason to believe you are violating a law. Heien argued that Darisse had no authority for the traffic stop because North Carolina law requires only one working brake light, not two.
This gap in the law might seem counterintuitive, but the “plain text” of the applicable statute requires only that a car be “equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle” (emphasis added). The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed with Heien’s interpretation, ruled Darisse’s stop of the vehicle “objectively unreasonable,” and ruled the drugs found in the subsequent search inadmissible.
The North Carolina Supreme Court reinstated the conviction. Darisse had made a reasonable mistake, the state high court ruled. “An officer may make a mistake, including a mistake of law,” the court said, without violating the Fourth Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court had long held that police can make reasonable mistakes of fact without violating the Fourth Amendment, but had never explicitly allowed that same discretion for mistakes of law. To Roberts, the answer was obvious. The Fourth Amendment prohibits only unreasonable police conduct, Roberts stressed, and reasonable police can make reasonable mistakes not only as to the facts but also as to the law.
Roberts sought to qualify the holding. “The Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes,” he wrote, “and those mistakes whether or fact or of law must be objectively reasonable.” In a concurring opinion, liberal justices Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized the limitation. “[T]he government cannot defend an officer’s mistaken legal interpretation,” Kagan wrote, “on the ground that the officer was unaware of or untrained in the law.”
Among the justices, only Sotomayor, a former assistant district attorney in New York City, has actual experience in criminal justice at the local level. In that world, police often make mistakes, sometimes deadly ones. And police already have a lot of leeway not only for reasonable mistakes of fact but also for pretextual stops. In Whren v. United States (1996) the court ruled, unanimously, that the Fourth Amendment allows police to stop a car for a routine traffic violation even if the stop was a pretext for a different purpose in that case, drug enforcement.
Sotomayor, attuned to the real-world consequences, said the court’s new decision would have the effect of “further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protections of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down.” Giving police the power to stop a vehicle on the basis of a nonexistent law, she said, “significantly expands” their authority. The result, she said, is "bad for citizens” and “bad for police.”
The police who have been in the news in recent days in Ferguson, Mo.; New York City; and Cleveland, for example give no confidence that this added discretion will be applied with care or evenhandedly as between white and black civilians. Think as well about Maricopa County’s blustery anti-immigrant sheriff Joe Arpaio or anti-gay officers in un-gay friendly jurisdictions around the country. The courts stand between them and law-abiding citizens, but the Supreme Court forgot that role in its decision last week.