WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a blow to the constitutional rights of citizens, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in Heien v. State of North Carolina that police officers are permitted to violate American citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights if the violation results from a “reasonable” mistake about the law on the part of police.
The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Heien v. North Carolina is available at www.rutherford.org.
“By refusing to hold police accountable to knowing and
abiding by the rule of law, the Supreme Court has given government
officials a green light to routinely violate the law,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “This
case may have started out with an improper traffic stop, but where it
will end—given the turbulence of our age, with its police overreach,
military training drills on American soil, domestic surveillance, SWAT
team raids, asset forfeiture, wrongful convictions, and corporate
corruption—is not hard to predict. This ruling is what I would call a
one-way, nonrefundable ticket to the police state.”
In April 2009, a Surry County (N.C.) law enforcement officer stopped a
car traveling on Interstate 77, allegedly because of a brake light
which at first failed to illuminate and then flickered on. The officer
mistakenly believed that state law prohibited driving a car with one
broken brake light. In fact, the state traffic law requires only one
working brake light. Nevertheless, operating under a mistaken
understanding of the law, during the course of the stop, the officer
asked for permission to search the car. Nicholas Heien, the owner of the
vehicle, granted his consent to a search. Upon the officer finding
cocaine in the vehicle, he arrested and charged Heien with trafficking.
Prior to his trial, Heien moved to suppress the evidence seized in light
of the fact that the officer’s pretext for the stop was erroneous and
therefore unlawful. Although the trial court denied the motion to
suppress evidence, the state court of appeals determined that since the
police officer had based his initial stop of the car on a mistaken
understanding of the law, there was no valid reason for the stop in the
first place. On appeal, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled
that even though the officer was wrong in concluding that the inoperable
brake light was an offense, because the officer’s mistake was a
“reasonable” one, the stop of the car did not violate the Fourth
Amendment and the evidence resulting from the stop did not need to be
suppressed. In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme
Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys warn against allowing government
agents to “benefit” from their mistakes of law, deliberate or otherwise,
lest it become an incentive for abuse.
Affiliate attorney Christopher F. Moriarty assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court.