Earlier this year, the North Carolina Supreme Court issued a ruling that has changed the way law enforcement officials interact with drivers whom they suspect of breaking the law. The issue in the case was this: When a cop mistakenly believes something to be against the law and initiates a traffic stop based on that mistake, is evidence of criminal activity obtained during that stop illegal or should it be allowed in court?
In the original case, defendants Maynor Javier Vasquez and Nicholas Heien were driving on Interstate 77 in North Carolina. An officer saw the car drive by and began following them because he thought Vasquez, who was driving at the time, looked nervous. When Vasquez hit the brakes, the officer saw that the right rear brake light was out and pulled the car over.
The officer believed it was against state laws to drive a car with a broken brake light and told Vasquez and Heien that that was the reason for pulling them over. During the traffic stop, the officer began to suspect the men of carrying drugs and asked to search the car. Heien agreed to the search and the officer found cocaine. Both men were charged with attempted drug trafficking.
On appeal, the court found that North Carolina’s laws require only one working brake light in the car. Because Heien’s left brake light was functional, the officer should not have initiated a traffic stop. The Court of Appeals ruled that the “officer’s mistaken belief that a defendant has committed a traffic violation is not an objectively reasonable justification for a traffic stop,” and that the stop was in violation of Heien’s Fourth Amendment rights.
The Fourth Amendment gives U.S. citizens the right to privacy, which includes protection from unreasonable search and seizure. In this case, Heien had an expectation of privacy in his car, which was violated by an unreasonable traffic stop since he was not breaking the law. The appellate court’s decision upheld this interpretation of the officer’s actions.
The Case in Supreme Court
The state brought the N.C. Court of Appeals’ decision to the state Supreme Court and challenged the ruling that an officer’s mistaken belief of the law negated any reasonable justification to pull a driver over. In the state Supreme Court’s decision, the justices ruled that an officer of the law can make a mistake on state procedures and requirements and still reasonably enact a traffic stop based on that mistake. In other words, the officer who stopped Heien because of his broken brake light was not in the wrong, even though the state’s laws require only one working brake light.
In these cases, evidence obtained unlawfully, but in good faith, can be used to build a case against a driver or passenger. The drug trafficking charges for Heien and Velasquez were valid based on the cocaine found in their vehicle.
At Cheshire, Parker, Schneider, & Bryan, we represent anyone who has been charged with criminal activity following a traffic stop. For more information on this case and the Supreme Court’s decision, contact a Raleigh DUI lawyer at CPSB today.