Heien v. North Carolina
April 21, 2014
Case #: 13-604
Court Below: 737 S.E.2d 351 (N.C. 2012)
Full Text Opinion: http://appellate.nccourts.org/opinions/?c=1&pdf=29506
Criminal Procedure: Whether an officer's mistaken understanding of a statute can create the reasonable suspicion needed to justify a traffic stop.
Petitioner's car was pulled over for having one brake light out even through two brake lights are not required in North Carolina. The officer issued a warning citation for the brake light and then asked to search the car. Petitioner consented to the search and the officer found cocaine.
Petitioner was charged with drug trafficking; he attempted to suppress the cocaine by arguing that the traffic stop violated his Fourth Amendment right because the officer lacked "reasonable articulable suspicion that criminal activity had been committed or was being committed, or that a motor vehicle traffic offense or infraction had occurred." The motion was denied and Petitioner was convicted.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed holding that the law only required one brake light and the officer's mistaken belief of violation was not an objectively reasonable justification for the stop. The Supreme Court of North Carolina reversed holding that the one light requirement was a permissible reading of the statute but that the officer's mistake was reasonable and thus could still give rise to reasonable suspicion.
Petitioner would like the Supreme Court resolve the split among state and federal courts as to the question of whether or not an officer's mistake of law can give rise to reasonable suspicion.