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Police Powers Expand: Analysis of Heien v. North Carolina

Updated on July 16, 2015

Ignorance of the law is no excuse. This fundamental custom is continuously ingrained in American citizens. Regardless of whether or not an offender knew the offense committed was a crime, the offender remains guilty. In the case of Heien v. North Carolina, it was the law enforcement officer whose ignorance of the law led Supreme Court justices to consider whether or not to admit evidence that was obtained during a traffic stop that was made in error.

The Supreme Court decides whether or not to admit evidence that was obtained during a traffic stop that was made in error.
The Supreme Court decides whether or not to admit evidence that was obtained during a traffic stop that was made in error. | Source

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Heien consented to the search of his vehicle after the officer asked him. Click here to learn your rights during police encounters and how to not consent to searches.


On April 29, 2010, Sergeant Matthew Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department pulled over Maynor Javier Vasquez driving north on I-77 in North Carolina because of a broken brake light. He noticed another man, Nicholas Heien, who was the owner of the Ford Escort, had been sleeping under a blanket in the backseat. Sergeant Darisse spoke with Vasquez and Heien and he became concerned with their inconsistent stories of their destination. Sergeant Darisse asked the men if he could search the vehicle and they agreed. Sergeant Darisse found a bag containing 54.2 grams of cocaine. Sergeant Darisse charged Vasquez and Heien with cocaine trafficking and cited Heien for the nonworking brake light.

Heien moved to suppress the evidence that was seized during the search of the vehicle. He argued that the state violated his rights that were guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and under the North Carolina Vehicle Light Statute, vehicles are only required to have one working rear brake light, and because he had one working, Sargeant Darisse did not have the required reasonable suspicion to even justify the traffic stop. The trial court denied the motion to suppress the evidence of cocaine, ruling that Sergeant Darisse had reasonable suspicion that the driver was violating a North Carolina law by driving with a dysfunctional brake light and the traffic stop was constitutional, and Heien was indicted.

Heien appealed and the North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and held that the traffic stop was not objectively reasonable because North Carolina law only required one working brake light, which Sergeant Darisse initially pulled Heien’s vehicle over solely because one the rear brake lights were not working. According to the Court of Appeals, a traffic stop based on a law enforcement officer’s mistake of law is automatically unreasonable.

North Carolina requested discretionary review of the Supreme Court of North Carolina. The Supreme Court of North Carolina considered whether a police officer’s mistake of law could still provide the required reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop. The Supreme Court of North Carolina reversed and held “that when an officer’s mistake of the law is reasonable, it may give rise to the ‘reasonable suspicion’ required for a warrantless search of a vehicle under the Fourth Amendment.” The Court did not consider whether the Vehicle Light Statute required more than one working brake light. Heien then appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. On April 21, 2014, Heien’s petition for writ of certiorari filed to the United States Supreme Court was granted.



The issue in question is simple: Does a police officer’s mistake of law provide the reasonable suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires? The Supreme Court will need to determine whether a law enforcement officer can meet the requirement of reasonable suspicion by making a traffic stop based on a mistake of law.

North Carolina State Law

The North Carolina statute, Section 20-129(g), states that “No person shall sell or operate on the highways of the State any motor vehicle, motorcycle or motor-driven cycle, manufactured after December 31, 1955, unless it shall be equipped with a stop lamp on the rear of the vehicle.” Based on Heien correctly following the law having a vehicle that had a stop lamp on the rear of the car, Sergeant Darisse had no reasonable suspicion to justify the traffic stop. North Carolina asserts that by not allowing officers to make stops based on mistakes of law, officers may be deterred from making stops. However, since Heien was following the law, having at least one working rear traffic light, there was no need for Darisse to stop the vehicle or conduct a search. Allowing officers to make such stops would expand police powers during traffic stops, which leads to civil liberties being eroded.

Darisse argued, however, that another subsection of this statute, Section 20-129(d), which he relied on while making the traffic stop, requires that “Every motor vehicle…have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order, which lamps shall exhibit a red light plainly visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the rear of such vehicle.”

Fourth Amendment

Heien argues that traffic stops that are on the basis on mistakes of law violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. This would allow innocent individuals to be subject to traffic stops as a result of a mistake of law made by the law enforcement officer to justify such a stop, and individuals should not be exposed to such stops when they are innocent of any crime. According to the Rutherford Institute, “police officers often stop individuals for minor crimes in order to investigate more serious crimes for which they do not have reasonable suspicion” and a ruling that is in favor of North Carolina “will cause an increase in the number of legally baseless searches.” Allowing these stops could lead to an invasion of privacy.

In opposition, North Carolina states that this has limited impact on the Fourth Amendment and would only be allowed when a statute is unclear and a mistake of law is reasonable. Even if these stops intrude an individual’s privacy, these stops would ensure the safety of the individuals in the vehicle and deter serious crimes.

Exclusionary Rule

The exclusionary rule is designed to exclude evidence that is obtained in violation of a criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement officers, and if the search is unreasonable, the evidence that is obtained in the search will be excluded from trial. In Mapp v. Ohio, the Supreme Court was faced with a similar issue of admitting evidence obtained by a search. Dollree Mapp was convicted of possessing obscene materials after a police search in her home, and she appealed on the basis of her freedom of expression permissible by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court held that “all evidence obtained by searches and seizures in violation of the Constitution is, by the Fourth Amendment, inadmissible in a state court.” This ruling placed the requirement of excluding illegally obtained evidence from Court, and determined how and when to apply the exclusionary rule.

Should police officers be able to make "reasonable mistakes of law"?

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Supreme Court's Decision

The Supreme Court decided that the law enforcement officer’s mistake of law did provide the individualized reasonable suspicion. According to the majority opinion, as long as the mistake of law or fact is reasonable, the Fourth Amendment does not hold such mistakes to be incompatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion. The Court also held that those mistakes must be reasonable.

The only dissenting judge, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, argued that “Fourth Amendment jurisprudence has traditionally focused on the officer’s factual conclusions rather than understanding of the law. Expanding leeway allowed to police officers with respect to their factual assessment to the meaning of the laws they are meant to enforce runs the risk of eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protections. In the absence of any evidence that holding police officers to this standard would prevent effective enforcement of the law, mistakes of law should not be considered reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.”

Opinion of the Decision

Ignorance made by law enforcement officers can lead to the expansion of police authority, which could potentially lead to the erosion of civil liberties. The Supreme Court’s decision expanded police powers allowing them to make “reasonable” mistakes of law, essentially lowering the expectations that law enforcement officers should have. If a law enforcement officer can make mistakes of law, how do you determine whether the mistake made by the officer is reasonable? A police officer’s mistake of law should not provide the reasonable suspicion that is required by the Fourth Amendment to justify a traffic stop. A North Carolina Court of Appeals judge states that if an officer’s mistake of law is reasonable and could give the officer reasonable suspicion as provided in the Fourth Amendment, it creates “fundamental unfairness” because citizens are held to the traditional rule that ignorance of the law is no excuse while excusing police officers of this ignorance.


Exclusionary Rule. (n.d.). Retrieved from The Legal Dictionary:

Heien v. North Carolina. (n.d.). Retrieved from Oyez:

Heien v. North Carolina. (n.d.). Retrieved from Cornell University Law School:

Mapp v. Ohio. (n.d.). Retrieved from Oyez:

Nicholas B. Heien v. North Carolina. (n.d.). Retrieved from Google Scholar:

Section 20-129. Required Lighting Equipment of Vehicles. (n.d.). Retrieved from North Carolina General Statutes:


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