Mistake for Me; Jail for Thee

By Allen R. Thompson, Esq.

The Supreme Court of the United States continued to tighten the scope and meaning of the Fourth Amendment on Monday. In Heien v. North Carolina, the Court almost unanimously held that a “reasonable” mistake of law could provide the basis for reasonable suspicion and, therefore, any evidence obtained thereafter could be admissible in court.

To state the facts briefly, Nicholas Heien and Maynor Vasquez were driving on the highway, when Sergeant Matt Darisse noticed that the driver (Vasquez) appeared suspicious. He followed Vasquez and noticed that one brake light was out. He then pulled Vasquez over, thought that he and Heien appeared nervous, and eventually obtained consent to search the vehicle. During the search, Sgt. Darisse found a bag of cocaine in a duffel bag. Heien and Vasquez were arrested and Heien eventually moved to suppress the cocaine as the fruit of an invalid search. The trial court declined, but the appeals court reversed, holding that because North Carolina law only requires one brake light, there was no violation, making the search “objectively unreasonable.” The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the appeals court, finding that the mistake of law was reasonable and, therefore, did not violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court then took the case on appeal.

Justice Roberts wrote the opinion in which 7 other Justices joined (only Justice Sotomayor dissented). Finding that the 4th Amendment protects individuals only from unreasonable searches and seizures, and agreeing with the North Carolina Supreme Court that Sgt. Darisse’s interpretation of the law was reasonable, he found that no violation occurred.

Heien argued, however, that it was inherently unfair to hold police officers to a lower standard of legal knowledge than an average citizen. In essence, if ignorance of the law is no excuse for an average citizen, it cannot be fair that a police officer – ostensibly trained in the law – may be ignorant of the law. In response, Justice Roberts correctly stated that “the government cannot impose criminal liability based on a mistaken understanding of the law.” (Slip op. at 12). For example, “if the law required only one [working rear lamp], Sergeant Darisse could not issue a valid ticket by claiming he reasonably thought drivers needed two.” (Id.)

Justice Roberts does not complete the logic equation, however. If the state cannot impose criminal liability based on a misunderstanding of the law, then the evidence gathered during a search premised on an incorrect reading of the law cannot be the basis for a criminal conviction, as it was here. The logical conclusion to Justice Roberts’ rationale is to immunize Sgt. Darisse from civil liability; instead, Justice Roberts and the majority of the Court seem to imply that a reasonable mistake of the law should only excuse the individual who made the mistake, leaving the consequences of the mistake to rest upon the victim of the misunderstanding.

Justice Roberts’ decision turns the “ignorance of the law” maxim on its head. Based on Heien, ignorance of the law (if “reasonable”) may both shield an officer from liability and be used to obtain evidence to convict. This is quite the win-win for the state. Instead of allowing for “reasonable” mistakes as to the law, the maxim should be repealed in its entirety. No one – neither police officers nor average citizens – should be held personally accountable for honestly misinterpreting a poorly drafted law. Perhaps in an era when the law was not quite as ubiquitous and voluminous, “ignorance of the law is no excuse” was an appropriate adage. Today, however, as can be seen with the detail in which the legislature regulated tail and brake lights, state codes encompass sometimes over a hundred volumes of thin-paged, small-font pages. Thus, it is impossible to know every single law and the “ignorance of the law” adage should be considered obsolete, rather than controlling. Holding Sgt. Darisse personally accountable for misinterpreting the North Carolina legislature’s unclear statute would not forward that goal and would, in fact, only serve to affirm the principle; but neither should Mr. Heien be forced to suffer the consequences of Sgt. Darisse’s mistake.

This suit was not a civil rights action seeking damages under 42 U.S.C.A. s. 1983. Rather, it was a criminal appeal. So while Sgt. Darisse may not be civilly liable for the violation of Mr. Heien’s rights, it is all the more unfair that his misinterpretation directly caused Mr. Heien to be criminally liable.

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