Despite its 1974 pronouncement in Wood v. Strickland, 420 U.S. 308, 321 (1975) that an action that violates a citizen’s rights cannot be “justified by ignorance or disregard of settled, indisputable law,” the Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13–604, that police officers do not violate the Fourth Amendment when they make a stop or arrest based on a “reasonable mistake of law.”
The December 15, 2014, decision arose from a quotidian scenario: cop wants to investigate a “suspicious” car; cop pulls car over when he sees that it has one brake light out, which the cop believes to be a violation of North Carolina law; motorist’s “nervous” behavior during the ensuing stop gives cop some further suspicion; cop asks for and receives permission to search the car; drugs found; motorist arrested and charged.
Then there’s a twist. It turns out that North Carolina law requires only one working brake light, which the motorist had, meaning that the cop curbed the car for something that did not violate any law. Must the drugs be suppressed as the fruit of an unreasonable seizure?
No, says the Supreme Court. Just like a seizure based on a reasonable mistake of fact does not violate the Fourth Amendment (the Court gives the good example of cop pulling over a driver who appears to be driving solo in a high-occupancy lane when it turns out that driver had two kids slumped over sleeping in the back seat) neither does a cop’s “objectively reasonable” mistake of law violate the Fourth Amendment.
Here, the Supreme Court says it was reasonable for the cop to (mistakenly) believe that the North Carolina vehicle code in question required all brake lights to be operational. Therefore, the stop was reasonable and the drugs are not suppressed.
Obviously, the biggest beef people have with the decision is that it seems to fly in the face of the age-old principle that knowledge of the law is imputed to the general public. In other words, that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” See e.g., Bryan v. United States, 524 U.S. 184, 195, 118 S.Ct. 1939, 141 L.Ed.2d 197 (1998) (“ignorance of the law is no excuse” for criminal conduct). Indeed, some courts have pointed out that permitting an ignorance of the law defense in the qualified immunity context “might foster ignorance of the law or, at least, encourage feigned ignorance of the law.” Glasson v. City of Louisville, 518 F.2d 899, 909-10 (6th Cir.1975). See also, e.g., Pritchard v. Hamilton Township Board Of Trustees, 2011 WL 2039066, No. 09-4594, (6th Cir., May 25, 2011) (“Knowledge of the statute is imputed to the police officers. … We see no reason to hold that it would be reasonable for an officer to be ignorant of the very statute that he is enforcing.”)
I’m not entirely convinced by Justice Roberts’ attempt to explain these problems away:
Contrary to the suggestion of Heien and amici, our decision does not discourage officers from learning the law. The Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes—whether of fact or of law— must be objectively reasonable. We do not examine the subjective understanding of the particular officer involved. Cf. Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806, 813 (1996). And the inquiry is not as forgiving as the one employed in the distinct context of deciding whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity for a constitutional or statutory violation. Thus, an officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce.
Finally, Heien and amici point to the well-known maxim, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” and contend that it is fundamentally unfair to let police officers get away with mistakes of law when the citizenry is accorded no such leeway. Though this argument has a certain rhetorical appeal, it misconceives the implication of the maxim. The true symmetry is this: Just as an individual generally cannot escape criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law, so too the government cannot impose criminal liability based on a mistaken understand- ing of the law. If the law required two working brake lights, Heien could not escape a ticket by claiming he reasonably thought he needed only one; if the law required only one, Sergeant Darisse could not issue a valid ticket by claiming he reasonably thought drivers needed two. But just because mistakes of law cannot justify either the imposition or the avoidance of criminal liability, it does not follow that they cannot justify an investigatory stop. And Heien is not appealing a brake-light ticket; he is appealing a cocaine-trafficking conviction as to which there is no asserted mistake of fact or law.
The sole dissenter, Justice Sotomayor, decried the majority’s “ero[sion of] the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties” and points out 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.”
She also discusses another practical problem with the decision: that it will have “the perverse effect of preventing or delaying the clarification of the law” by lower courts, which in deciding motions to suppress will no longer need to offer a definitive interpretation of the law, but rather will need only to decide whether the officer’s interpretation of the law–setting right or wrong aside–was a “reasonable” one. Justice Sotomayor writes: “This result is bad for citizens, who need to know their rights and responsibilities, and it is bad for police, who would benefit from clearer direction.”
Is this decision a disaster for the Fourth Amendment? I don’t know. It’s not good. My biggest concern is that leaves so much in the hands of lower court judges, who are now the sole arbiters of whether a mistake of law was “objectively reasonable.” With a favorable judge, Heien is a non-issue. With a judge biased towards the police? It’s a big problem.
Full text of the decision here.