Ignorance of the law is no excuse – unless you’re a police officer

Ignorance of the law is no excuse – unless you’re a police officer

- in Law and the Courts


It started with a flickering brake light on Nicholas Heien’s Ford Escort.

He was asleep in the back seat while Maynor Javier Vasquez drove the car along Interstate 77 in Surry County during the early morning hours in April 2009, when Officer Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department flipped on his blue lights to stop the car.

The officer told Vasquez he had pulled the Escort over for a non-functioning brake light.

Things went downhill from there.

A vehicle search followed, then an arrest and ultimately a conviction for cocaine trafficking.

But here’s the rub. Driving with a flickering or broken brake light is not against the law in North Carolina, as long as the other brake light is working.

What happens then, when a vehicle stop based upon an officer’s mistaken view of the law leads to a search, an arrest and a conviction?

Does that stop, and the police actions that followed, pass muster under the Fourth Amendment, which requires that an officer have at least a reasonable suspicion that a law has been violated before making that stop?

And does, or should, the adage “ignorance of the law is no excuse” apply to police officers just as it applies to other citizens?

Those are questions the U.S. Supreme Court will consider next term after agreeing on Monday to review State v. Heien, a decision by a bare majority of the North Carolina Supreme Court holding that an officer’s reasonable mistake of law passes constitutional muster.

That’s a decision that conflicts with rulings from the majority of state and federal courts across the country addressing similar facts — one that not only gives rise to questions about what exactly makes any particular mistake reasonable but also feeds concerns about the dangers of vesting discretion in interpreting the law with those whose duty is to enforce it.

“The North Carolina Supreme Court’s rule is flatly inconsistent with the principles underlying the U.S. Supreme Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence,” said attorneys for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in papers filed in support of Heien’s request for review.

“It has always been the province of the courts, not law enforcement, to determine and apply the law governing an investigatory stop. There is no basis under the Fourth Amendment for officers to conduct seizures based on nothing more than suspicion of conduct that violates no law.”


After his arrest, Heien asked the trial court to suppress the evidence obtained from the vehicle search, which followed from what he contended was an unlawful traffic stop.

The trial court ruled against him, but the Court of Appeals later ruled in his favor, holding that an officer’s mistaken belief that a traffic violation has occurred is not a reasonable justification for a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.

The state Supreme Court then took the case on discretionary review and, by a 4-3 vote, reversed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Adopting a view expressed by only a minority of courts across the country, the Court held that so long as an officer’s mistaken view of the law is reasonable, it may give rise to the reasonable suspicion required under the Fourth Amendment to justify a traffic stop.

“Requiring an officer to be more than reasonable, mandating that he be perfect, would impose a greater burden than that required under the Fourth Amendment,” Justice Paul Newby wrote for the court.

The majority then found that in Heien’s case, the officer’s mistake was “reasonable” because “[w]hen the stop occurred, neither this Court nor the Court of Appeals had ever interpreted our motor vehicle laws to require only one properly functioning brake light.”

But three justices dissented, saying that the majority was dangerously introducing subjectivity into an inquiry that it, and the U.S. Supreme Court, had already determined called for an objective approach.

“There are many problems with the majority’s decision—it introduces subjectivity into what was previously a well-settled objective inquiry and creates an interpretive role regarding state statutes for police officers and police departments,” Justice Robin Hudson wrote in her dissent, joined by Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson and Chief Justice Sarah Parker.

Hudson added:

“The danger in adopting a new constitutional rule here is that this particular case seems so innocuous: Of course it is reasonable that an officer would pull over a vehicle for a malfunctioning brake light. But this new constitutional rule will also apply in the next case, when the officer acts based on a misreading of a less innocuous statute, or an incorrect memo or training program from the police department, or his or her previous law enforcement experience in a different state, or his or her belief in a nonexistent law.”


A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court next term may resolve questions that have been percolating through state and federal courts across the country – with differing results.

If the high court agrees with a majority of federal and state courts in holding that a mistake of law cannot supply the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify a traffic stop, then a bright line will have been established.

But if the justices align themselves with the minority of courts that have held otherwise, then questions will linger.

“One of the interesting issues hidden in the case is how do you define a mistake of law and a reasonable mistake of law,” said Jeffrey Welty, a professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government.  “How the court addresses that could have an impact on the significance of the decision.”

Jeffrey Fisher, director of the Stanford Law School Supreme Court Litigation Clinic and one of the attorneys representing Heien at the Supreme Court, agrees that the injection of “reasonableness” into the analysis creates problems for the courts.

But what’s more troublesome about the position that the North Carolina court adopted, according to Fisher, is that it rewards mistakes and sends the wrong message to officers involved in the millions of traffic stops made across the country each year.

“If police are mistaken about the law they have expanded authority,” he said. “We ought to have the opposite incentive, for officers to be very careful about taking extra steps to make sure they understand the law.”

It also sends the wrong message to all citizens, he added.

“Citizens themselves have an obligation to follow the law, so we should hope that police officers would have the same responsibility.  When we drive on the roadways we have an obligation to obey all traffic rules. We shouldn’t have an obligation to somehow conform our conduct to what a police officer might mistakenly think we’re required to do. It’s an almost impossible task.”

About the author

Sharon McCloskey, former Courts, Law and Democracy Reporter for N.C. Policy Watch, writes about the courts and decisions that impact North Carolina residents. McCloskey also wrote for Lawyers Weekly and practiced law for more than 20 years. Follow her online at sharonmccloskey.com or @sharonmccloskey.