Illinois Bar Journal

February 2015Volume 103Number 2Page 12

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Ignorance of the law - an excuse after all?

The Supreme Court ruled that a "reasonable mistake of law" can provide reasonable suspicion to justify a traffic stop. Are police being held to a lower standard than ordinary citizens?

Very late last year, the United States Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530 (2014). In an 8-1 ruling, the Court held that a police officer's objectively reasonable mistake of law can support the reasonable suspicion needed to stop a vehicle under the Fourth Amendment.

The 8-1 decision was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, and Kagan. Justice Kagan joined Chief Justice Roberts' opinion and also drafted her own concurrence. Justice Sotomayor dissented. The opinion has been sharply criticized by members of the criminal defense bar as a further erosion of citizens' Fourth Amendment protections.

Malfunctioning brake light(s)

In Heien, a North Carolina sheriff stopped a car because one of its brake lights was not working. There were two men in the car, Maynor Javier Vasquez and Nicholas Brady Heien. During the stop, the sheriff searched the vehicle and found a sandwich bag containing cocaine. Both men were arrested.

Heien was charged with trafficking cocaine. He moved to suppress the evidence obtained during the search, arguing that the stop and search violated the Fourth Amendment. The trial court denied Heien's motion to suppress.

On appeal, the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial court finding that the initial stop was invalid because driving with one working brake light was not a violation of North Carolina law. The court focused on the language of the relevant statute, which makes references to "a stop lamp" and "the stop lamp." It concluded that the statute only required that a vehicle have one working brake light, making the justification for the traffic stop "objectively unreasonable."

The North Carolina Supreme Court reversed, holding that the sheriff could have reasonably understood the statute to require both brake lights be functional. It noted that another section of the statute required that all originally equipped rear lamps be functional. The North Carolina Supreme Court found that because the sheriff's mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable, the stop and subsequent search did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The United States Supreme Court ultimately granted certiorari.

Only 'objectively reasonable' mistakes

The majority opinion, penned by Chief Justice Roberts, states that "reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion." Heien, 135 S.Ct. at 536. The opinion continues, "Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer's understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law." Id. The Court noted that "[t]he Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes - whether of fact or of law - must be objectively reasonable. We do not examine the subjective understanding of the particular officer involved." Id. at 539.

Justice Elena Kagan's concurring opinion points out that the objectively reasonable mistake standard is "satisfied when the law at issue is 'so doubtful in construction' that a reasonable judge could agree with the officer's view." Id. at 541. Her analysis focuses on the ambiguity of the North Carolina statute, which could be read to require only one brake light to be functional or all brake lights to be functional. Id. at 541-42. "The critical point is that the statute poses a quite difficult question of interpretation," writes Justice Kagan. Id. at 542.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor's dissent argues that the case law regarding probable cause determinations of police officers has traditionally focused on "their assessment of facts." Id. She notes that the controlling precedents make "scarcely a peep…to suggest that an officer's understanding or conception of anything other than the facts is relevant." Id. at 543. Justice Sotomayor argues "giving officers license to effect seizures so long as they can attach to their reasonable view of the facts some reasonable legal interpretation…significantly expands" their authority. Id.

A double standard?

East Peoria criminal defense attorney Jeffrey Hall agrees with Justice Sotomayor's dissent. If police officers are given an exemption from the law based on their misinterpretation of the law, "then why not apply the same standard to citizens?" he says.

He says that this opinion is an example of "the courts allow[ing] too much leeway to the state while holding citizens to a higher standard." The current state of the law, he notes, does not allow citizens to assert "mistake of law" as a defense to criminal charges. Hall, who was a prosecutor prior to his current position as managing member of Hall Rustom & Fritz, LLC, says the disparity is particularly obvious when one considers that "trained law enforcement officers" are being held to a lower standard than the layperson.

Heien "further degrades the Fourth Amendment," says Hall. "I can't recall the last time that a U.S. Supreme Court opinion came down that was a sweeping judgment in favor of citizen rights," he says. Michael Wepsiec, former state's attorney for Jackson County, agrees. He notes that many vague statues are likely unconstitutional and therefore are no basis for a custodial stop. Hall and Wepsiec agree that Heien will lead to more litigation as courts attempt to apply the new standard.

Matthew Hector is a senior associate at Sulaiman Law Group, Ltd.

Member Comments (6)

See 720 ILCS 5/4-8 for circumstances in which a mistake of law can be a defense to a criminal charge.

On our way to "may I see your papers please"?

A sweeping judgment in favor of citizen rights came in the recent case where police were obligated to get search warrants to inspect cell phones.

Always good to see trained police officers held to a lower standard than the general public. The Framers are rolling over in their graves.

Ignorance of the law is indeed a defense to a criminal charge - if it negates criminal intent. See Cheek v. US, 498 U.S. 192 (1991), and its progeny. I argued and won the Cheek case in the Supreme Court.

Isn't the government held to the "empty head black heart" standard of conduct?

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