U.S. Supreme Court: Police can stop car on reasonable mistake of law

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that an officer’s objectively reasonable mistake of law justifies stopping a car.

A fundamental right guaranteed to Floridians under the U.S. and Florida Constitutions is the right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. If evidence is found during an unconstitutional search or seizure, it is inadmissible in a criminal trial.

As to what is a reasonable seizure in the context of a traffic stop, Florida case law says that officers may stop a car legally if they have a founded or reasonable suspicion that a crime has been or will be committed by the passengers. Law enforcement may also legally stop a vehicle if the officer has probable cause to think that a traffic offense has been committed.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that if police stop a car based on an objectively reasonable mistake of fact, the stop, considered a seizure under the Fourth Amendment, will not be an illegal seizure under the Constitution.

In December 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court extended this concept to hold that if a police officer stops a vehicle based on an objectively reasonable mistake of law, it also will not violate the Constitution.

In Heien v. North Carolina, a North Carolina officer stopped a car believing that state traffic law was being violated because the vehicle only had one brake light. It turned out that the sergeant was mistaken about state law; it was not illegal to drive with only one brake light. However, the law as written is very confusing, so the U.S. Supreme Court held that the mistake of law was objectively reasonable and therefore the stop was not an unreasonable seizure.

Unfortunately for the car's owner who was in the back seat and consented to a search of the car, cocaine was found. The defendant Heien pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, but reserved his right to appeal the trial court's determination that the stop was legal and therefore the cocaine evidence should not be suppressed.

After winding its way through state court appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court found the stop constitutional because it was based on the officer's objectively reasonable mistake of law.

Critics of the decision worry that it eats away at the rights of criminal defendants by expanding the definition of what a legal traffic stop can be. However, eight of the nine justices joined in the decision, so it is hard to say it is an outlier.

In the lone dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor writes of her belief that the decision will result in "further eroding the Fourth Amendment's protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down." She points out that only one of the lower federal circuits has previously agreed and continues, "I see nothing to be gained from such a holding, and much to be lost." Her dissent concludes that a police officer's mistake of law should not justify a seizure.

What remains now for Floridians is to see how it will play out in state courts that interpret the Heien decision in the context of traffic stops in which officers claim that objectively reasonable mistakes of law justify the seizures and do not taint subsequently seized evidence.

What is important is that any Floridian who experiences a traffic stop like this immediately consult a criminal defense attorney who is knowledgeable about the developing and complex case law in this area and will know how to fight to preserve the defendant's legal and constitutional rights.

In Jacksonville, the criminal defense lawyers at the Arnold Law Firm stand ready to provide such vigorous defense to Floridians.

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