Police Officer’s Mistake of Law Does Not Make an Arrest and Search Invalid


By: Wayne Melnick

Earlier this week, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a police officer’s mistaken belief of the state of the law does not make an arrest and search invalid as long as the officer’s belief was reasonable.  In Heien v. North Carolina, Case No. 13-604, an 8-1 majority affirmed the ruling of the North Carolina Supreme Court and held that even assuming no violation of the law took place, as long as the officer’s “mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable” a stop made was valid and anything that flowed from the stop was, therefore, not suppressible.

In Heien, a police officer pulled a vehicle over for having only one operating tail light, believing that North Carolina law required both tail lights to be operational.  During the stop, the officer obtained and received permission to search the vehicle and found cocaine during the search.  It turns out, that North Carolina law required only “a stop lamp” or “the stop lamp” and based on that language, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the officer was mistaken in believing that he had reasonable suspicion to believe the driver had committed any crime.  However, Chief Justice Roberts also stated that this “mistake of law,” as long as it was “reasonable” (as it was in this case), did not invalidate the stop; and therefore the subsequent search and arrest were deemed appropriate.

The ramification of this in the civil rights arena quickly comes into question. Now, when a citizen claims that his Fourth Amendment rights have been violated for an illegal seizure if the stop is based on the officer’s incorrect, but reasonable belief that the suspect was violating the law (when in fact, no law was broken), will the officer have the defense that as long as the officer’s belief that a crime was being committed was reasonable that it provides him qualified immunity to any potential section 1983 claim?  No doubt, this will provide a soon-to-be developed front in the ever-changing world of Fourth Amendment civil rights cases.