Police Decisions Up for Debate in Today’s SCOTUS Case

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The Supreme Court has an exciting new term ahead of it, and today’s case is no exception. This week the justices will hear arguments in Heien vs. North Carolina, a case that at its core poses one very simple question: should police officers be held to a higher standard? It’s a timely question, given the events of this summer, and one whose answer may hold some interesting ramifications.

In 2009, a man named Nicholas Heien was with another man who was driving his car in North Carolina when he was pulled over for having a busted tail light. Officers ended up searching the car — which belonged to Heien — and discovering a relatively substantial amount of cocaine. Heien was arrested and charged with drug trafficking.

Now under North Carolina law, if Heien was pulled over because he was breaking a law, and the subsequent search yielded the cocaine discovery, that would have been legal. The problem is that he wasn’t actually breaking a law when he was pulled over — technically, as long as you have one functioning tail light, you’re operating within the law in North Carolina. The officer who pulled him over was simply wrong about the law.

The Fourth Amendment reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Fourth Amendment requires that searches are lawful — and there’s significant evidence to suggest that the search of Heien’s car was not. There needs to be reasonable suspicion that a law has been violated in order to conduct that search. A non-functioning brake light, which is not even illegal, is simply not enough.

Heien lost his original trial. He then won an appeals case, but lost in the North Carolina State Supreme Court. The case will now be making its way to the Supreme Court, which will have to figure out whether the North Carolina Supreme Court made the right decisions saying that Heien’s arrest was fair, even though the cop who pulled him over was ignorant of the laws in the state in which he worked.

The State Supreme Court held that requiring officers to be walking encyclopedias of the states’ laws is ridiculous and creates much higher standards than the Fourth Amendment mandates. But the dissenters pointed out that allowing that kind of subjectivity could create a sort of slippery slope. In the dissent, Justice Robin Hudson wrote:

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.

Then there’s the context of this August to discuss. The events in Ferguson propelled a national dialogue, one that was opened by stop-and-frisk laws, militarization of our police departments, and dozens of other issues around the country about the power of our police departments. Obviously, none of these examples are about the same kind of issue — the cops in Heien’s case obviously did not shoot anyone. But it does hark back to that question: what leniency do we give to our cops?

In the United States, not knowing a law is no excuse for breaking it. Should not knowing it also be an excuse for incorrectly enforcing it? Now, that’s up to the Supreme Court to decide.

Anneliese Mahoney
Anneliese Mahoney is Managing Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at



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