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More on Heien v. North Carolina

On Monday, I wrote this post on the oral argument in Heien v. North Carolina, a case where the defendant wants evidence resulting from a traffic stop suppressed.  A police officer stopped the car for having only one of two brake lights working, and the state court of appeals, to the surprise of just about everyone, decided that was not a violation in North Carolina.

If the U.S. Supreme Court agrees with the North Carolina Supreme Court that the officer's good faith belief about the law makes this a reasonable seizure, then the case is simple.  If not, it gets complicated.  Rory Little has this analysis at SCOTUSblog predicting that the Court will indeed take the simple route and affirm the state court on the substantive Fourth Amendment question, leaving the complicated issues to another day.


I agree with Professor Little that the Court will hold that a Fourth Amendment seizure can be based on a reasonable mistake of law. And will not get into the messy (but theoretically interesting) issue of whether remand would be in order (if the seziure wasn't reasonable) and what should happen in state court upon any such remand, i.e., whether the state court could refuse to apply the federal good faith exception in rendering its decision regarding remedy.

I don't believe that the Court needs to take the additional step of determining what constitutes a "reasonable" mistake. That determination -- like the determination of what constitues reasonable suspicion (justifying a Terry stop) or probable cause (justifying a custodial arrest) -- can't be reduced to a bright line formula. Rather, I think the Court should do what it did last term in Navarrete: State that the determination of reasonableness must be based on the totality of the circumstances.

Perhaps, the Court should provide a list of nonexclusive factors that lower courts can consider, such as whether or not, at the time of the seizure, the state law in question was subject to more than one reasonable interpretation; and whether or not any court had previously construed the law in a manner that was consistent (or inconsistent) with the officer's interpretation.

By the way, it is refreshing to read succinct, balanced, legal analysis like that provided by Prof. Little (and regularly provided on this blog by Kent and, sometimes, by Bill [Sorry, Bill, balance is sometimes absent IMHO) instead of drivel dressed up as "analysis," such as Garrett Epps's article on The Atlantic entitled The 'Barney Fife Loophole' To The Fourth Amendment.

paul --

Thanks for your comment. I learn from feedback. As long as what I'm saying is true and relevant to either crime, criminal law or the cultural contours in which the battle is waged, I view balance in every single entry, though desirable, as a secondary virtue.

This blog is massively outnumbered by pro-defense blogs that provide their own viewpoint. Much of the reason I'm here is to help provide the other side of the story. Taken all together, the debate thus joined has balance -- though, in my view, it's a balance that, in sheer numbers, still decidedly tilts in the opposition's favor.

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