Whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop.
Lower court opinion: State v. Heien, 737 S.E.2d 351 (N.C. 2012)
Heien was stopped because one of the two brake lights didn’t illuminate when his car slowed down. But it turns out North Carolina statutes don’t clearly require two working brake lights. If having only one working light doesn’t violate the statute, the officer’s decision to stop the car (and the subsequent discovery of cocaine) was based on a mistake about state law. In a 4-to-3 decision the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld, concluding that “so long as an officer’s mistake [of law] is reasonable, it may give rise to reasonable suspicion.” 737 S.E.2d at 358.
As the Heien dissent and Heien’s petition for certiorari point out, the clear majority of courts deciding this issue have come to the opposite conclusion, and for good reason: Whether a stop is valid depends on whether the facts support a reasonable suspicion a law has been violated. This is an objective inquiry; the officer’s subjective state of mind is irrelevant. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813 (1996). As explained in United States v. McDonald, 453 F.3d 958, 962 (7th Cir. 2006):
It makes no difference that an officer holds an understandable or “good faith” belief that a law has been broken. Whether the officer’s conduct was reasonable under the circumstances is not the proper inquiry. … Rather, “the correct question is whether a mistake of law, no matter how reasonable or understandable, can provide the objectively reasonable grounds for providing reasonable suspicion or probable cause.” … The answer is that it cannot. A stop based on a subjective belief that a law has been broken, when no violation actually occurred, is not objectively reasonable.
In addition, creating an exception for mistakes of law by police would defeat the purpose of the exclusionary rule by removing the incentive for police to make certain that they properly understand the law that they are entrusted to enforce and obey. Id. at 962. Finally, it is fundamentally unfair to hold citizens to the traditional rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse while allowing those entrusted to enforce the law to be ignorant of it. United States v. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d 1271, 1280 (11th Cir. 2003). We’ll see next term if the Supreme Court is persuaded by these arguments.
Wisconsin is in the majority camp: “a lawful stop cannot be predicated upon a mistake of law.” State v. Longcore, 226 Wis. 2d 1, 9, 593 N.W.2d 412 (Ct. App. 1999), aff’d by an equally divided court, 2000 WI 23, 233 Wis. 2d 278, 607 N.W.2d 620. This principle was recently applied by the court of appeals in State v. Antonio Brown, 2013 WI App 17, ¶21, 346 Wis. 2d 98, 827 N.W.2d 903. Last fall the supreme court granted the state’s petition for review in the case. Though the state conceded any mistake of law by the officer invalidated the stop, after oral argument the supreme court ordered supplemental briefing on the mistake-of-law question. The supplemental briefs are now available here. Brown’s has a great overview of the majority position, showing the numerous courts that have adopted it and the reasons why. The state for its part agrees with the majority view: “An officer’s good-faith mistake of law, or for that matter a bad-faith mistake of law, has no effect on the validity of a traffic stop. What the officer believes the law to be does not matter. Instead, … the inquiry is whether the facts apparent to the officer objectively establish probable cause that a crime has been committed, or reasonable suspicion that the law has been, is being, or will be violated.” (State’s Supp. Brief at 7).
While both the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts will be answering the question, the decision in Heien will control as to what the Fourth Amendment requires. Since we usually apply the search and seizure provisions in art. I, § 11, of the state constitution in conformity with the Fourth Amendment, State v. Fry, 131 Wis. 2d 153, 171-74, 388 N.W.2d 565 (1986), Heien will likely be the last word on the matter.