Is the Supreme Court decision in HEIEN v. NORTH CAROLINA (574 U.S. ___ (2014), Case 13-604) really new law?
There has been a recent flurry of debate regarding the Supreme Court decision in Heien. This case dealt with two men who were stopped by a police officer while driving in North Carolina. Heien was the owner of the car. The officer stopped the vehicle because it had a burned out taillight. The officer issued a warning only, but was suspicious of the two men's conduct. He asked, and received permission, to search the car. Therein he found cocaine. The two were convicted to transporting cocaine across state lines. While this seems to be a relatively straight forward case, the rub comes in the North Carolinian law. On the books, the law does not require a driver to have two taillights working. In fact, the warning issued by the officer was incorrect, and he should not have stopped the vehicle for this "defect." The appeal to the Supreme Court asked whether an arrest stemming from an officer's stop based on an incorrect understanding of the law may still be considered valid. The Court said, "Yes."
Folks, this is not new law. While the Court made a point of indicating no similar cases had been so decided, in a landslide ruling (8 justices sided with the majority opinion), the Court reaffirmed the common-law principal of "reasonably articulable suspicion." According to Cornell Law School, reasonable articulable suspicion is defined as:
Reasonable [articulable] suspicion is sufficient to justify brief stops and detentions, but not enough to justify a full search. When determining reasonable suspicion, courts consider the events leading up to the brief stop and a decide whether these facts, viewed from the standpoint of an objectively reasonable police officer, amount to reasonable suspicion.
Usually, this is the standard used by beat cops and officers on patrol; it is not a common concept in traffic offenses. However, it appears the Supreme Court extended the concept to cars. Essentially, the police officer only needs to have a reasonable belief that something untoward is happening. In this instant case, the officer believed the vehicle was unsafe based on the burned out light. A stop, under the mere guise of safety, would be appropriate, and certainly, his suspicion can be stated clearly.
However, there is an interesting corollary that defense attorneys should explore. If the Supreme Court found that a mistake of law was not grounds to disqualify a stop; could you use mistake of law (understanding thereof) as a defense to intent? It would seem what is good for the goose should be good for the gander.
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