Heien v. North Carolina(United States Supreme Court): Is an Arrest Constitutional if Based on a Reasonable Mistake About the Law?

by Jack E. Call
Professor of Criminal Justice
Radford University
E-mail:  jcall@radford.edu


A North Carolina police officer pulled over Heien while he was driving, because one of his brake lights was not working.  During the stop, the officer asked for and received consent from Heien to search his car.  The search turned up cocaine in a duffel bag in the car.  The North Carolina appellate courts held that the officer’s conclusion that Heien had violated the traffic laws of North Carolina was mistaken.  Because the statute only requires “a stop lamp,” the courts ruled that the statute was not violated so long as a vehicle had one operating brake light.  Heien argued, therefore, that his arrest was unconstitutional because the officer who stopped him lacked probable cause or reasonable suspicion to think Heien had violated the law.  If the stop was unconstitutional, then the fruits of that seizure (the cocaine) would be inadmissible at Heien’s trial.

The issue presented by the case (Heien v. North Carolina[1]) was whether a police officer possesses reasonable suspicion to stop a person if the suspicion is based on a reasonable mistake about the meaning of the law.  Since the North Carolina courts had not previously ruled that the state statute on brake lights only requires one working light, it was reasonable for the police officer who stopped Heien to think that the law required two operating brake lights.

The U.S. Supreme Court concluded, 8-1, that the seizure of Heien was constitutional.  (Justice Sotomayor was the only dissenting Justice).  In an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court reasoned that since existing law permits reasonable suspicion or probable cause based on facts relied on by an officer who is reasonably mistaken as to the actual facts, there is no reason not to permit a seizure of a person based on a reasonable mistake of law as well.

Perhaps the most important question facing courts in the wake of the Heien decision is how stringent a standard they will utilize in determining what is a reasonable mistake of law.  In responding to a defense argument that the Court’s holding will discourage police officers from learning the law, the majority opinion indicated that this “inquiry is not as forgiving as the one employed in the distinct context of deciding whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity for a constitutional or statutory violation. Thus, an officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce.”  While this statement suggests that the test for what constitutes a reasonable mistake of law is a higher standard than what qualifies as a good faith mistake in a civil action brought under 42 USC §1983 for a violation of one’s constitutional rights, the standard it creates provides very little guidance for courts in future cases.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Kagan suggested that “the test [for determining the existence of a reasonable mistake of law] is satisfied when the law at issue is ‘so doubtful in construction’ that a reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s view….  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….. [A] court could easily take the officer’s view (deciding that a brake light is a rear lamp, and if a car comes equipped with more than one, as modern cars do, all must be in working order). The critical point is that the statute poses a quite difficult question of interpretation, and [the police officer’s] judgment, although overturned, had much to recommend it.”

At least one commentator views this as a tougher test than a reasonable officer test – more like a reasonable judge test.[2]  Even if that is the case, Justice Ginsburg was the only Justice who joined Justice Kagan’s concurring opinion.  Thus, Justice Kagan’s comments lacked the support of a majority of the Justices.

What if the mistake of law made by an arresting officer was not a reasonable mistake?  Once the Constitution has been violated, the next logical question is what is the remedy?  What sanction is to be imposed for the constitutional violation?  The usual remedy for violations of the 4th Amendment is exclusion of the evidence obtained as a result of the violation.  Heien does not address that issue, and its resolution will have to be decided by a future case.

The Supreme Court's opinion in Heien v. North Carolina is available here.


[1] 574 U.S. _____, decided December 15, 2014.

[2] Orin Kerr, “Reasonable Mistake of Law Can Generate Reasonable Suspicion,” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2014/12/15/reasonable-mistake-of-law-can-generate-reasonable-suspicion-supreme-court-holds/).


Disclaimer:  The content of the Virginia Police Legal Bulletin does not constitute legal advice, nor does it reflect the opinions or views of the Virginia Police Legal Advisors Committee.