The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday on Heien v. North Carolina, a case involving whether police officers can justify a traffic stop due to a reasonable belief of the law that is inaccurate. The case could have implications
In the case, an officer in North Carolina pulled over a driver who only had one brake light working. The brake light malfunction was cited as the reason for the stop. During the stop, the officer searched the car and found cocaine. The driver was charged with cocaine trafficking and cited for the broken brake light.
However, North Carolina law only requires a driver to have “a stop lamp.” It is not, therefore, against the law to driver with only one brake light working. The officer had made the stop on the basis of a mistaken belief about what the law says.
The case was appealed in state court. The appeals court found that the mistaken belief that the driver had committed a traffic violation did not warrant “objectively reasonable justification” for a traffic stop. The North Carolina Supreme Court disagreed, saying the officer’s mistake was “reasonable” and therefore justified reasonable suspicion.
The matter before the U.S. Supreme Court now is whether a perceived violation of the law can be sufficient grounds to give officers reasonable suspicion to conduct a stop. The implications of their decision could extend to whether a similar mistake could give probable cause to conduct a search or make an arrest.
If the Court rules that a mistake in law can lead to a reasonable suspicion, traffic stops would be significantly affected, as demonstrated by the case Heien is based upon. Traffic laws are complex, and it would be easy for a police officer to make a mistake about vehicle requirements or any of the other myriad laws that regulate motor vehicles and how they are operated under the law.
A traffic stop can lead to drug arrests, DUI arrests and many other criminal charges.
The implications may extend beyond traffic stops, though. Gun rights groups filed a brief siding with the defendant, in part because weapons laws are similarly technical and could lead to searches and stops based on officers’ mistakes on the law.
The case may have profound implications on police’s ability to make stops that often lead to arrests on more serious charges. According to observers, the justices seemed split on their leanings during oral arguments.