What Happens if The Police Misinterpret The Law?

Can a Police Officer’s Mistake Make a Search Invalid?

Not anymore.

The U.S. Supreme Court held yesterday that a police officer’s “mistake of law” can still lead to a valid search, as long as the mistake was “objectively reasonable.” The case, Heien v. North Carolina, involved a traffic stop that led to search of the car, narcotics, and a conviction for drug trafficking. The car had only one working brake light. At the time he stopped the car the officer believed that North Carolina law required all vehicles to have two working brake lights, although the law doesn’t actually say so. Heien challenged the basis for the traffic stop on the grounds that the officer’s mistake about the law couldn’t lead to a valid search under the Fourth Amendment.

The question in the case was this: Can a police officer make a mistake as to what a law actually says or means, use that as the basis for a stop, and the stop still be valid?

The Fourth Amendment and Traffic Stops

Any time the police suspects someone is breaking the law and pulls them over that counts as a “seizure” as far as the Fourth Amendment goes. To correctly pull someone over, the police must have a “reasonable suspicion” that the driver or someone in the car is breaking the law.

Getting the Facts Wrong

But what if the police pull you over because they got the facts wrong? Here’s an example:

You drive a bright green Miata. The other person in your town who also drives a bright green Miata has just robbed a convenience store, and has sped off down the highway. The police receive a “BOLO” for a bright green Miata involved in a robbery, and pull you over on your way to work. After approaching your car and seeing you’re not the convenience store bandit, the officer asks if he can search your car and you agree. You have nothing to hide, right? As luck would have it, your “buddy” left a dime bag in your center console from last weekend, and you are arrested.

Can you successfully challenge your arrest for drug possession based on the officer misidentifying your car as the getaway car from the robbery? You didn’t rob the convenience store, and so the police didn’t have the reasonable suspicion to stop your car, right?

Wrong. Even though the police made a mistake of fact (that your car was involved in a robbery), that doesn’t mean you skate on the drug possession charges. As long as the police’s mistake of fact was objectively reasonable (i.e. that a reasonable, careful, etc. police officer would have made the same mistake given the same information) the stop is valid. The courts also give police officers a lot of leeway on this, since they are “trained law enforcement officers on the scene.” U.S. v. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d 1271 (11th Cir. 2003).

Mistake of Fact vs. Mistake of Law:

Until the Heien case, the courts drew a firm line between police officers making mistakes of fact versus mistakes of law. Just like the police can make mistakes about facts, they can make mistakes about the law. Police officers can mistakenly believe you are breaking a law, even when you’re not, and use that as the basis for an arrest and search. Unlike mistakes of fact, the courts have held police to the highest standard when they make a mistake about the law. Here’s how the courts have drawn a distinction between mistakes of fact and mistakes of law:

[T]he correct question is whether a mistake of law, no matter how reasonable or understandable, can provide the objectively reasonable grounds for reasonable suspicion or probable cause. And to that question we join the Fifth and Ninth Circuits in holding that a mistake of law cannot provide reasonable suspicion or probable cause to justify a traffic stop. U.S. v. Chanthasouxat, 342 F.3d 1271 (11th Cir. 2003).

We have no doubt that Officer Hill held his mistaken view of the law in good faith, but there is no good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule for police who do not act in accordance with governing law. To create an exception here would defeat the purpose of the exclusionary rule, for it would remove the incentive for police to make certain that they properly understand the law that they are entrusted to enforce and obey. U.S. v. Lopez-Soto, 205 F.3d 1101 (9th Cir. 2000).

In other words, the police are entrusted with the civic duties of upholding and enforcing our laws. They should, therefore, be able to understand what our laws do and do not say. If they get it wrong, and getting it wrong leads to a search and an arrest, any evidence the police got should be thrown out.

That’s the point of the “exclusionary rule” – to deter the police from getting it wrong. It keeps the evidence gathered by an illegal search out of court as the deterrent. Do an illegal search or arrest someone without the proper cause, lose the conviction.

How the Heien Case Changed Mistake of Law

The Heien case has changed the way courts will view it when police officers make a mistake about the law. The Court held that mistakes of law should be treated the same way as mistakes of fact – if the officer’s mistake was objectively reasonable, then the arrest is valid. In Heien, the police officer stopped the car due to it having only one working brake light. It turned out that the officer misinterpreted the state law about brake lights to say that any car must have at least two working brake lights in order to legally go down a public road. Because the Supreme Court found that this mistake about what the law means was reasonable, then the officer’s stop of the car was ok.

Ignorance of the Law is Now an Excuse … For the Police

Here’s the biggest problem with the Heien case – it treats average citizens and the police very differently on what happens if we make a mistake about the law. If Joe Schmoe the pharmacist misinterprets the law about dispensing controlled substances and gets caught, well he’s charged with a felony. If an eighth grader doesn’t know it’s illegal to receive naked pictures of someone their age over the internet, that’s a felony. The state attorney will even come to their school and get eighth graders to incriminate themselves en massewithout telling them about their right to counsel or that they have a constitutional right to not incriminate themselves. But if a police officer misinterprets the law and makes an arrest, then it’s apparently now valid.

But doesn’t this encourage police officers to make up reasons to arrest people? Doesn’t it give them a free pass to justify those arrests by simply saying they reasonably misinterpreted the law? I believe it does. Even though Justice Roberts tries to address this in the opinion, I call bullshit.

What this really gives police officers and prosecutors is a way to justify an illegal arrest after the fact, that is, once they find evidence of a crime. By doing that this ruling absolutely removes the incentive police officers have to apply the law correctly. Police officers make mistakes about what the law says all the time. Until this case, the law protected citizens from those mistakes. Not anymore.

Need help?

Metcalf Falls, Criminal Defense Attorneys, P.A. is experienced with the law and has helped others get their cases thrown out because of illegally obtained evidence. We can help you today with your case.