Last month, the United States Supreme Court issued a surprising opinion that’s created waves of concern in the criminal defense circle. In Heien v. North Carolina, a North Carolina police officer noticed that one of the brake lights on the defendant’s vehicle was not working, so the officer pulled the defendant over believing that having a broken brake light was a violation of North Carolina law. A subsequent search of the defendant’s vehicle revealed cocaine, resulting in his arrest. The defendant attempted to suppress the evidence on the basis that he didn’t commit a traffic violation. The North Carolina courts reviewed the relevant traffic statute, and they determined that as long as one brake light is working, no crime has occurred.
Since the defendant didn’t commit a traffic violation, the stop was illegal, and the evidence of the cocaine should be suppressed. Seems simple, right? According to an 8-1 majority of the Supreme Court, that doesn’t end the inquiry, as courts must examine whether the officer’s mistaken belief about the law was reasonable. Here, the North Carolina law was somewhat ambiguous because another statute mandated that all “rear lamps” be functioning, and it’s not unreasonable to interpret a brake light as a type of rear lamp. Thus, even though the officer’s interpretation of the law was incorrect, this interpretation was reasonable at the time of the stop.
The Supreme Court’s analysis is problematic. Aren’t police officers supposed to know the law? And if they don’t know the law, how can anyone deem this lack of knowledge reasonable when the officers are trained experts on what’s illegal? If a medical doctor performing an appendectomy mistakenly removes your spleen instead of your appendix, we call that malpractice, and there’s no wiggle room for the doctor to argue that the mistake was reasonable. Apparently, cops get much more leeway.
Many defense attorneys are concerned that Heien might be a slippery slope. Will prosecutors now defend all unlawful stops on the basis that the officer’s mistaken belief about the law was reasonable at the time of the stop?
I say bring it on. I plan to argue that Heien applies to only a tiny set of scenarios: those in which the law is ambiguous and there’s no case precedent that clarifies this ambiguity. In Texas, most of the traffic laws are pretty clear cut. For example, it’s not a crime to swerve within your own lane as long as your car doesn’t cross into another lane. If an officer stops someone for swerving but the defense proves that the car never crossed into another lane, the prosecution won’t be able to argue that the officer reasonably believed that swerving within one’s own lane is against the law. That’s because, unlike the North Carolina law at issue in Heien, there’s no ambiguity in the law in my hypothetical example.
Still, I anticipate that prosecutors will attempt to use Heien as a tool to validate otherwise unlawful stops. As a result, it’s important to retain an experienced, knowledgeable defense attorney to persuade the courts that Heien doesn’t apply.