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Reasonable Mistake of Law Isn't Ground for Suppressing Search: SCOTUS

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on December 16, 2014 9:54 AM

When can a police officer's mistake of law be overlooked in a motion to suppress? Whenever it's a reasonable mistake, Chief Justice John Roberts explained in an 8-1 decision in Heien v. North Carolina.

A county sheriff's deputy pulled Nicholas Heien over for having one brake light out. This traffic stop for an equipment violation, of course, yielded cocaine (like these cases often do). On appeal, Heien argued that the deputy lacked reasonable suspicion for the stop because the North Carolina statute in question doesn't require that a car have two working brake lights.

Reasonable Mistakes of Law Are A-OK

Supreme Court precedent already makes an allowance for reasonable mistakes of fact. This situation really isn't any different, Roberts said. "Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not what was thought, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law."

The elephant in the room here was that there was no elephant. Courts had rarely, if ever, been asked to suppress evidence because a police officer got the law wrong. Roberts reached back about 200 years to find the original case on this point, United States v. Riddle, in which Chief Justice John Marshall said that a "doubt as to the true construction of the law is as reasonable a cause for seizure as a doubt respecting the fact."

Roberts also believed that, just as officers have to make split-second evaluations of the facts in front of them, they also have to make similar evaluations of whether the law applies to those facts. "A law prohibiting 'vehicles' in the park either covers Segways or not ... but an officer will nevertheless have to make a quick decision on the law the first time one whizzes by," Roberts wrote, citing to a 2012 book on interpreting legal texts by Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner. Finding that the deputy's mistake was reasonable -- because the statute speaks of "a stop lamp" but also talks about the stop lamp in conjunction with "other rear lamps" -- Roberts upheld the search.

Concurrence, Plus Dissent

Justices Kagan and Ginsburg concurred, only to reinforce their belief that a mistake of law has to be objectively reasonable and completely divorced from any influence on the officer, like poor training or an incorrect memo.

Justice Sotomayor dissented alone. She would hold that "an officer's mistake of law, no matter how reasonable, cannot support the individualized suspicion necessary to justify a seizure under the Fourth Amendment." While officers get deference to their perception of the facts because they have to make split-second decisions, "[t]he same cannot be said about legal exegesis." Sotomayor was also concerned about the use of pretextual stops to arrest people, which the Court has upheld as long as there's actually a reason to stop the person. With the Heien opinion, officers can use arguably ambiguous statutes "to effect seizures so long as they can attach to their reasonable view of the facts some reasonable legal interpretation (or misinterpretation) that suggests a law has been violated."

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