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Heien v. North Carolina

United States Supreme Court

December 15, 2014


Argued October 6, 2014


Following a suspicious vehicle, Sergeant Matt Darisse noticed that only one of the vehicle's brake lights was working and pulled the driver over. While issuing a warning ticket for the broken brake light, Darisse became suspicious of the actions of the two occupants and their answers to his questions. Petitioner Nicholas Brady Heien, the car's owner, gave Darisse consent to search the vehicle. Darisse found cocaine, and Heien was arrested and charged with attempted trafficking. The trial court denied Heien's motion to suppress the seized evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, concluding that the vehicle's faulty brake light gave Darisse reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the relevant code provision, which requires that a car be "equipped with a stop lamp, " N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §20—129(g), requires only a single lamp—which Heien's vehicle had—and therefore the justification for the stop was objectively unreasonable. Reversing in turn, the State Supreme Court held that, even assuming no violation of the state law had occurred, Darisse's mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable, and thus the stop was valid.


Because Darisse's mistake of law was reasonable, there was reasonable suspicion justifying the stop under the Fourth Amendment. Pp. 4-13.
(a) The Fourth Amendment requires government officials to act reasonably, not perfectly, and gives those officials "fair leeway for enforcing the law, " Brinegar v. United States, 338 U.S. 160, 176. Searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact may be reasonable. See, e.g., Illinois v. Rodriguez, 497 U.S. 177, 183-186. The limiting factor is that "the mistakes must be those of reasonable men." Brinegar, supra, at 176. Mistakes of law are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion, which arises from an under-
Syllabus standing of both the facts and the relevant law. Whether an officer is reasonably mistaken about the one or the other, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law. And neither the Fourth Amendment's text nor this Court's precedents offer any reason why that result should not be acceptable when reached by a reasonable mistake of law.
More than two centuries ago, this Court held that reasonable mistakes of law, like those of fact, could justify a certificate of probable cause. United States v. Riddle, 5 Cranch 311, 313. That holding was reiterated in numerous 19th-century decisions. Although Riddle was not a Fourth Amendment case, it explained the concept of probable cause, which this Court has said carried the same "fixed and well known meaning" in the Fourth Amendment, Brinegar, supra, at 175, and n. 14, and no subsequent decision of this Court has undermined that understanding. The contrary conclusion would be hard to reconcile with the more recent precedent of Michigan v. DeFillippo, 443 U.S. 31, where the Court, addressing the validity of an arrest made under a criminal law later declared unconstitutional, held that the officers' reasonable assumption that the law was valid gave them "abundant probable cause" to make the arrest, id., at 37. Heien attempts to recast DeFillippo as a case solely about the exclusionary rule, not the Fourth Amendment itself, but DeFillippo's express holding is that the arrest was constitutionally valid because the officers had probable cause. See id., at 40. Heien misplaces his reliance on cases such as Davis v. United States, 564 U.S. __, where any consideration of reasonableness was limited to the separate matter of remedy, not whether there was a Fourth Amendment violation in the first place.
Heien contends that the rationale that permits reasonable errors of fact does not extend to reasonable errors of law, arguing that officers in the field deserve a margin of error when making factual assessments on the fly. An officer may, however, also be suddenly confronted with a situation requiring application of an unclear statute. This Court's holding does not discourage officers from learning the law. Because the Fourth Amendment tolerates only objectively reasonable mistakes, cf. Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806, 813, an officer can gain no advantage through poor study. Finally, while the maxim "Ignorance of the law is no excuse" correctly implies that the State cannot impose punishment based on a mistake of law, it does not mean a reasonable mistake of law cannot justify an investigatory stop. Pp. 4-12.
(b) There is little difficulty in concluding that Officer Darisse's error of law was reasonable. The North Carolina vehicle code that requires "a stop lamp" also provides that the lamp "may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps, " N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §20—129(g), and that "all originally equipped rear lamps" must be "in good working order, " §20—129(d). Although the State Court of Appeals held that "rear lamps" do not include brake lights, the word "other, " coupled with the lack of state-court precedent interpreting the provision, made it objectively reasonable to think that a faulty brake light constituted a violation. Pp. 12—13.

367 N.C. 163, 749 S.E.2d 278, affirmed.

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which SCALIA, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan, JJ., joined. KAGAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which GlNSBURG, J., joined. SOTOMAYOR, J., filed a dissenting opinion.


The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures." Under this standard, a search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action includes a reasonable factual mistake. An officer might, for example, stop a motorist for traveling alone in a high-occupancy vehicle lane, only to discover upon approaching the car that two children are slumped over asleep in the back seat. The driver has not violated the law, but neither has the officer violated the Fourth Amendment.

But what if the police officer's reasonable mistake is not one of fact but of law? In this case, an officer stopped a vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out, but a court later determined that a single working brake light was all the law required. The question presented is whether such a mistake of law can nonetheless give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment. We hold that it can. Because the officer's mistake about the brake-light law was reasonable, the stop in this case was lawful under the Fourth Amendment.


On the morning of April 29, 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff's Department sat in his patrol car near Dobson, North Carolina, observing northbound traffic on Interstate 77. Shortly before 8 a.m., a Ford Escort passed by. Darisse thought the driver looked "very stiff and nervous, " so he pulled onto the interstate and began following the Escort. A few miles down the road, the Escort braked as it approached a slower vehicle, but only the left brake light came on. Noting the faulty right brake light, Darisse activated his vehicle's lights and pulled the Escort over. App. 4-7, 15-16.

Two men were in the car: Maynor Javier Vasquez sat behind the wheel, and petitioner Nicholas Brady Heien lay across the rear seat. Sergeant Darisse explained to Vasquez that as long as his license and registration checked out, he would receive only a warning ticket for the broken brake light. A records check revealed no problems with the documents, and Darisse gave Vasquez the warning ticket. But Darisse had become suspicious during the course of the stop—Vasquez appeared nervous, Heien remained lying down the entire time, and the two gave inconsistent answers about their destination. Darisse asked Vasquez if he would be willing to answer some questions. Vasquez assented, and Darisse asked whether the men were transporting various types of contraband. Told no, Darisse asked whether he could search the Escort. Vasquez said he had no objection, but told Darisse he should ask Heien, because Heien owned the car. Heien gave his consent, and Darisse, aided by a fellow officer who had since arrived, began a thorough search of the vehicle. In the side compartment of a duffle bag, Darisse found a sandwich bag containing cocaine. The officers arrested both men. 366 N.C. 271, 272-273, 737 S.E.2d 351, 352-353 (2012); App. 5-6, 25, 37.

The State charged Heien with attempted trafficking in cocaine. Heien moved to suppress the evidence seized from the car, contending that the stop and search had violated the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution. After a hearing at which both officers testified and the State played a video recording of the stop, the trial court denied the suppression motion, concluding that the faulty brake light had given Sergeant Darisse reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop, and that Heien's subsequent consent to the search was valid. Heien pleaded guilty but reserved his right to appeal the suppression decision. App. 1, 7-10, 12, 29, 43-44.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed. 214 N.C.App. 515, 714 S.E.2d 827 (2011). The initial stop was not valid, the court held, because driving with only one working brake light was not actually a violation of North Carolina law. The relevant provision of the vehicle code provides that a car must be

"equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle. The stop lamp shall display a red or amber light visible from a distance of not less than 100 feet to the rear in normal sunlight, and shall be actuated upon application of the service (foot) brake. The stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps." N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §20-129(g) (2007).

Focusing on the statute's references to "a stop lamp" and "[t]he stop lamp" in the singular, the court concluded that a vehicle is required to have only one working brake light—which Heien's vehicle indisputably did. The justification for the stop was therefore "objectively unreasonable, " and the stop violated the Fourth ...

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