HEIEN v. NORTH CAROLINA
On April 29, 2010, Sergeant Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department observed Maynor Javier Vasquez driving north on I-77 with a broken taillight. When Darisse pulled over the vehicle, he noticed another man, Nicholas Heien, lying under a blanket in the backseat. Darisse spoke with the two men, felt that their stories did not match up, and was concerned that Heien had not gotten up from the back seat. Darisse asked for permission to search the vehicle. Heien agreed, and Darisse found a bag containing 54.2 grams of cocaine in the car.
A grand jury indicted Heien for two counts of trafficking cocaine. Heien filed a motion to suppress the evidence discovered during the search of his vehicle, and the trial court denied the motion. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and held that the traffic stop was not objectively reasonable because North Carolina law only required one working brake light. The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed and held that when an officer’s mistake of the law is reasonable, it may give rise to the “reasonable suspicion” required for a warrantless search of a vehicle under the Fourth Amendment. That North Carolina Supreme Court sent the case back to the state Court of Appeals.
The North Carolina Court of Appeals found no error in the trial court’s judgment. A dissenting judge, however, stated that the North Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling created “fundamental unfairness” because it held citizens to the traditional rule that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” while allowing police to be ignorant of the law. Based on this dissent, Heien again appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court which rejected Heien’s appeal.
Does a police officer’s mistake of law provide the individualized reasonable suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires to justify a traffic stop?