Ignorance of the Law is No Defense. . .

Posted by Jessica Travis in Criminal Law Blog











 Ignorance of the Law is No Defense…Or Is It?

By Jessica Travis on Friday, October 4, 2013

Back in December of 2014, the Supreme Court, handed down a controversial ruling that not only brought citizens’ civil liberties into question, but also shined a light into the Supreme Court Justices’ interpretation of the Constitution. The case examined by these Justices touched on topics from Fourth Amendment search and seizure to the power afforded to the police in conducting and making arrests.

The case generating debate Heien vs. North Carolina. The case found its way to a North Carolina trial court after Nicholas Brady Heien was arrested and charged for cocaine trafficking. Heien v. North Carolina, 135 U.S. 530 (2015). The arrest occurred during a traffic stop in which a police officer pulled him over for a broken brake light. While writing a ticket for the brake-light, the officer, Sergeant Matt Darisse, claimed that Heien and his passenger became suspicious. Based on this observation, Sergeant Darisse requested a search of the vehicle. Heien consented to the search and the officer found cocaine in the car. Id.

At trial court, Heien made a motion to suppress the cocaine.  He claimed that the faulty brake light did not give the officer enough reasonable suspicion to make the stop and therefore the violated Heien’s Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Id. The trial court sided with the officer, concluding that the brake light gave the officer enough reason to initiate the stop. Id.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals took a different approach to the case. Analyzing the relevant North Carolina code provisions, the Court found that a vehicle only needs to be equipped with one working brake light, which Heien had at the time the stop was made. N.C. Gen.Stat. Ann. § 20–129(g). Following this provision, the Court reversed the trial court’s decision, concluding that because Heien’s vehicle complied with North Carolina law, there was no justification for the stop and subsequent search. Id. at 536. The Court claimed that the officer was mistaken in the traffic laws and therefore could not justifiably pull over Heien because he was not in violation of any traffic law.

With controversy arising over the debated findings between the trial court and appellate court, the case made it into the hands of the Supreme Court. With an 8 – 1 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the officer. The 8 Justices reasoned that the stop was reasonable and the subsequent search and seizure of the drugs was valid. Id. at 538. With Justice Roberts voicing the opinion of the Bench, the Supreme Court held that an officer’s reasonable suspicion, which is the burden required to make a traffic stop, can be upheld even if the officer was mistaken on the actual law.

Taking this Fourth Amendment into account, the Supreme Court reasoned that the Amendment only “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. (1949). Ultimately, they found that the Fourth Amendment does

allow for officer’s to make reasonable mistakes of the law when conducting searches and seizures. Heien, at 538. On this issue, Justice Roberts stated “[r]easonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer’s understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law. The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground”. Id. at 545.

Taking the minority opinion on this issue, Justice Sotomayor respectfully disagrees with her fellow Justices. She believes that the ruling finding in favor of the officer further erodes “the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in context where that protection has already been worn down”.  Beginning her opinion on the issue, she states, “I would hold that determining whether a search or seizure is reasonable requires evaluating an officer’s understanding of the facts against the actual state of the law.” With this reasoning, Justice Sotomayor “would accordingly reverse the judgment of the North Carolina Supreme Court”. Id.

Overall Justice Sotomayor believes that the ruling in Heien, allowing the officer to have reasonable suspicion based on mistaken law, is an unjust treatment of citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights. To conclude

with this belief, she states that, “[t]o my mind, the more administrable approach—and the one more consistent with our precedents and principles—would be to 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”. Id. at 545.

In the end, the officer’s mistake of the law was found to be reasonable and his search was deemed valid. However, it is important to understand that although the officer was afforded this leeway in mistaking the law, a regular individual cannot claim ignorance of the law as a defense. Therefore, an individual should not only be familiar with the laws, but they should also know the rights afforded to them when abiding by these laws.

As shown through the controversy surrounding this case, a citizen’s rights against searches and seizures are an integral part of the justice that they are afforded. If you feel your rights have been violated, it is important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to make sure your rights are upheld.

Heien v. United States can be found Here.

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