Supreme Court: Officers’ ignorance of the law is okay … sometimes
Can you be stopped for breaking a law that does not exist? The Supreme Court recently decided you can be stopped for breaking a law that does not exist. An officer’s mistake of law can still provide reason to stop. On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down Heien v. North Carolina. The Court ruled that an officer’s ignorance of the law or mistake of law may still be a valid basis for a police stop, if the mistake was reasonable.
Heien is an appeal based on the actions of a police officer in North Carolina. The officer saw a vehicle driving down the highway with one broken brake light. The second brake light was, however, still working. Based on the broken brake light, the officer pulled the vehicle over. Heien was issued a warning for the broken brake light. The officer then asked for consent to search the vehicle and found a bag of cocaine in the car. Heien was charged with cocaine trafficking.
At issue was the basis for the stop. North Carolina only requires “a stop lamp” which the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled to mean a single brake lamp. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the stop was legal despite the fact that the officer relied on his mistake of the law to make the stop.
The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. In order to perform a stop, an officer must have a particularized and objective basis that an offense is occurring, has occurred, or is about to occur. Fourth Amendment evaluations center on reasonableness.
The Supreme Court ruled that reasonable mistakes of law can give rise to legal stop. In this case, the officer’s mistake of law was found to be objectively reasonable because another code section in the North Carolina statute requires vehicles have all originally equipped rear lamps (plural) in good working order. While the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled the statute addressing the visibility of brake lights only required a single brake lamp, the Court also ruled that it would be reasonable for an officer to believe the law required two working brake lamps. The Supreme Court of the United States concluded that because the mistake of law was objectively reasonable, an officer could use that objectively reasonable mistake of law as a valid basis for a stop.
Justice Sotomayor was the only Supreme Court Justice who dissented. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote, “One is left to wonder … why an innocent citizen should be made to shoulder the burden of being seized whenever the law may be susceptible to an interpretive question.”
Does Texas Require Two Brake Lights?
Texas Transportation Code Section 547.322 requires “at least one stoplamp” for all passenger vehicles.
Is Mistake of Law a Defense in Texas for a Criminal Defendant?
Texas Penal Code Section 8.03 lays out mistake of law as a defense. In Texas, mistake of law is an affirmative defense for a criminal defendant charged with an offense. It is, however, an extremely difficult burden to prove that the defendant is entitled to the defense. The defendant must be able to show two things:
- the defendant reasonably believed that his actions were not a crime, AND
- the defendant must have reasonably relied on an official statement of law or written interpretation of the law by a court.
That second prong places a high burden on the defense to prevail on a mistake of law defense in Texas.
When your freedom, liberty, and reputation is on the line because you have been accused of a crime, you’ll want an attorney who keeps up with the most recent developments in the law. You’ll find those attorneys at Varghese Summersett PLLC. This week Anna Summersett was at the United States Supreme Court being sworn in to practice before the court on the same day that United States v. Heien was handed down. If you’ve been charged with an offense, call our Fort Worth Criminal Defense Attorneys at (817) 203-2220.