The Fourth Amendment is once again up for review in the first case to be argued in the new U.S. Supreme Court term. In the case of Heien v. North Carolina, Nicholas Heien was arrested and charged with two counts of trafficking cocaine after the vehicle he was traveling in was pulled over. However, in-depth research into the law revealed that no laws were broken previous to Heien being pulled over, and subsequently there was no reason for the officer to pull over the vehicle. Therefore, it would seem that the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights had been violated. The case bounced around the North Carolina court system and now has found its way to the Supreme Court.
The Original Case
In April 2010, Maynor Javier Vasquez was pulled over on I-77 in North Carolina after Sergeant Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department observed a broken brake light. When the officer pulled over the vehicle, he noticed Heien in the backseat lying under a blanket. This obviously raised concerns, and after speaking with both men and finding that their stories didn’t seem to match, he requested permission to search the vehicle. Permission was granted to Sgt. Darisse, and the search turned up a bag with 54.2 grams of cocaine.
[In this instance, Darisse had “reasonable suspicion” to search the vehicle but not “probable cause.” Heien could have declined the search. For more information on the topic of “search and seizure” and your rights when being pulled over, click our previous post, Questionable Focus on Highway Interdiction Nets Billions to Law Enforcement]
After being indicted on two counts of trafficking cocaine, Heien filed a motion to suppress the evidence based on his claim that a Fourth Amendment violation had occurred because technically Sgt. Darisse was in the wrong for pulling them over. In what is considered an antiquated law dating back to earlier models of vehicles equipped with only one “stop lamp”, North Carolina–as with many other states–still has on the books a statute stating that essentially only one “stop lamp” is required for a vehicle.
Heien argued that even though one of the brake lights on the vehicle was broken, the other was still functioning. Therefore the traffic stop was not objectively reasonable. The North Carolina Court of Appeals agreed and reversed the trial court judgment. However, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed this decision, stating that because the law was so antiquated and no one had really examined the statute in decades, the officer’s “mistake of the law” was reasonable. The case was sent back to the Court of Appeals who found no errors this time around with the trial court’s original judgment, but still expressed in the dissenting opinion that this raised questions of “fundamental unfairness” in regards to the fact that citizens traditionally aren’t allowed to use “ignorance of the law” as an excuse, so why should law enforcement be allowed this right?
Heien again went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, but the Court rejected his appeal. Now the case has found its way to the United States Supreme Court.
The Fourth Amendment, Exclusionary Rule and Good-Faith Exception
The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, which is the question at hand in the case of Heien v. North Carolina. In his defense, Heien is citing the exclusionary rule, a legal principle which states that evidence obtained in violation of a defendant’s constitutional rights may be inadmissible in court.
The problem that Heien may encounter is the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. This essentially states that if an officer was acting on “good faith” and had reasons to believe his/her actions were legal (such as in Heien’s case), the exclusionary rule doesn’t apply.
The interesting thing about this case is that while there are three ways the case could be resolved under federal law–essentially stating that the stop was lawful and evidence will be admitted, the stop wasn’t lawful and evidence shouldn’t be admitted, or the stop wasn’t lawful but the good-faith exception will apply–the Supreme Court is really only deciding if a violation of the Fourth Amendment occurred. They are not addressing the exclusionary rule or good-faith exception.
In other words, while the Supreme Court may decide that the stop was indeed unlawful, that doesn’t mean the evidence obtained during the search won’t still be used against Heien.
Only time will tell what the Supreme Court will decide, but one thing seems certain: the case of Heien v. North Carolina is most likely far from closed. In addition, if the Supreme Court rules for the state, many concerns could be raised regarding the fact that “ignorance of the law” is an argument which has always been denied to regular citizens but apparently doesn’t apply to law enforcement.