The Supreme Court’s Mistake on Law Enforcement Mistake of Law: Why States Should Not Adopt Heien v. North Carolina
Wake Forest Journal of Law and Policy, Forthcoming
43 Pages Posted: 28 Jan 2016 Last revised: 24 Feb 2016
Date Written: January 22, 2016
Should a law enforcement officer’s mistake of law constitute reasonable suspicion? According to the Supreme Court, the answer is yes. In Heien v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court surprisingly took the minority approach and held that a law enforcement officer’s mistake of law could equate to reasonable suspicion — provided that the mistake was objectively “reasonable”. In doing so, the Court reached the wrong conclusion.
This Article is the first to urge state courts to provide greater Fourth Amendment protections than the low standard set forth in Heien. States should not adopt Heien and instead should extend greater individual privacy protections for four reasons.
First, Heien left many unanswered questions, so if states adopt the standard set forth under Heien, it is unclear exactly what the state is adopting. These unanswered questions include: what is a reasonable law enforcement officer’s mistake of law and what types of mistakes can be considered in a reasonableness analysis?
Second, states should extend greater privacy protections than Heien because of well-established common law principles. Ignorance of the law is no excuse for citizens, so it should not be an excuse for law enforcement officers. Additionally, ambiguity in statutes should not be held against criminal defendants.
Third, law enforcement mistake of law violates governmental separation of powers. Law enforcement officers should not exercise the judicial function of interpreting laws or legislative function of creating laws one might reasonably believe exists, but in actuality does not.
Fourth, Heien is inconsistent with Fourth Amendment jurisprudence. Case law relating to the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule presumes that a mistake of law equates to a constitutional violation, yet Heien says just the opposite — that a mistake of law does not necessarily equal a constitutional violation.
Because states should extend greater privacy protections and not allow law enforcement officer’s mistake of law to rise to the level of reasonable suspicion, states should apply the exclusionary rule to evidence obtained during a stop premised on a law enforcement officer’s mistake of law.
Keywords: Heien v. North Carolina, Heien, mistake of law, police mistake of law, law enforcement mistake of law
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