Mistakes of law and the 4th Amendment
One of the first oral arguments in the Supreme Court's 2015 term was Heien v. North Carolina. The Court handed down its decision a month ago ("Gosh, Russ, why are you just now getting around to writing about?" "Shut up," he explained), and when I wrote about the oral argument, I said "I'd expect a decision upholding the search, but on narrow grounds. Frankly, I think that's the best we can hope for." Well, that's pretty much exactly what we got. Let's take a look.
Just the facts, ma'am. Heien was stopped because one of his brake lights was out, and was found to be carrying cocaine. The state statute required only a "stop lamp," and the state court of appeals decided this meant only one brake light was necessary, and threw out the search. The state supreme court reversed, and here we are.
The issue. The 4th Amendment prohibits "unreasonable" searches and seizures, and if the police officer's conduct is objectively reasonable, even if it turns out he was wrong, the search is still valid. If an officer stops someone for driving alone in the high-occupancy lane, then finds two children asleep in the back seat, that doesn't make the stop illegal; his belief that the law was being violated was reasonable.
But that's a mistake of fact. Here we're talking about whether that should be extended to a mistake of law. What if the officer stopped the car because he wrongly believed that any car driven in the far left-hand lane had to contain at least two occupants?
So what did the court do? By an 8-1 vote -- only Sotomayor dissented -- the Court upheld the search. It found that the same test should apply to an officer's mistake of law as to an officer's mistake of fact. Although the North Carolina Supreme Court had held that the statute, read in context, did require two working brake lights, the SCOTUS opinion assumes that even if it required only one, the officer's belief that it required two was reasonable.
The dog that didn't bark was the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule. That was part of the government's argument: that even if the officer was mistaken in his belief that the law had been broken, he had a good faith belief that he'd seen a violation, and thus the exclusionary rule shouldn't be applied to the search. That was a concern of mine, because it would mark yet another expansion of the good faith exception to warrantless searches, a concern I expressed when I discussed the Ohio Supreme Court's decision two weeks ago in State v. Johnson. In fact, the decision in Heien is quite narrow; the majority opinion acknowledges that the issue will arise only on "rare" occasions.
How rare is indicated by Kagan's concurrence. First, the officer's subjective understanding of the law is inconsequential; a legitimate mistake of law claim only arises only when the statute is so ambiguous that a reasonable judge could agree with the officer's view.
A court tasked with deciding whether an officer's mistake of law can support a seizure thus faces a straightforward question of statutory construction. If the statute is genuinely ambiguous, such that overturning the officer's judgment requires hard interpretive work, then the officer has made a reasonable mistake. But if not, not.
Ohio law has tended to view mistake of law as never being sufficient to justify a stop, and that obviously goes by the boards with Heien. But in a lot of those cases, Heien wouldn't make any difference. In State v. Fears, for example, the 8th District threw out a stop based on the officer's mistaken belief that the law required someone who put on his turn signal to actually turn. And last year, in State v. Drushal, the 9th District affirmed the grant of a motion to suppress, in a case which could have made the Bullshit Traffic Stop of the Week™: the officer stopped Drushal because Drushal had failed to stop his car before the "clearly marked solid stop bar" at a stop sign, which is what the officer believed the ordinance required, when it actually required a driver to stop at the stop bar.
Overall, I'm not too upset about Heien. As the vote indicates, it really wasn't a close call; I don't think many people would argue that an officer stopping the car for having a broken tail light was unreasonable because a law written 80 years earlier referred to a "stop lamp." The main thing, to me, was that the Court didn't expand any further the reach of the good faith exception to warrantless searches. And any time the Court doesn't narrow the scope of the exclusionary rule, that's a good day.