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  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse - until it is.

    The ever changing history of the Bill of Rights.














    Written by: Andy Carney

    As you likely know, the 4th Amendment affirms the right of the people to be secure in their premises, papers and possessions and protects us from unlawful search and seizure. Additionally, I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "Ignorance of the law is no excuse." This is about the intersection of those two concepts and the case of Nicholas Heien vs. North Carolina.

    To set the stage, in April of 2009, Maynor Vasquez was driving along Interstate 77 in Surrey County, North Carolina with Nicholas Heien, the owner of the car asleep in the back seat. Sgt. Matt Darisse was on patrol, looking for suspicious signs and selected Vasquez out for looking nervous. Sgt. Darisse followed the car for a while, noticed a brake light out and initiated a traffic stop. As Vasquez pulled over, the brake light popped back on. Unfortunately, what Sgt. Darisse pulled Vasquez over for is not actually a crime, or even a violation in North Carolina. Sgt. Darisse questioned both Heien and Vasquez separately and neither gave the same answer when asked about their ultimate destination. Furthering his suspicion, the officer asked Mr. Heien for permission to search the vehicle, to which Heien responded that he, "didn't really care." Sgt. Darisse found cocaine in the car and Heien, as the owner of the car, was arrested for drug trafficking. In pretrial hearings, his attorney attempted to suppress the evidence based on the fact that the officer was wrong about the law and had no valid reason for executing the traffic stop. The court denied the motion and Heien was convicted with his attorney reserving the right to appeal based on their belief that the stop was improper.

    The case was elevated to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, who promptly reversed the trial court’s decision about suppressing the evidence, citing a clear violation of the defendant’s 4th Amendment rights. The state then appealed the ruling to the North Carolina Supreme Court. Importantly, instead of challenging the law about the number of working brake lights needed, they only challenged the Appeals Court ruling about a mistaken belief that a violation occurred being able to provide objectively reasonable justification for a search. The North Carolina Supreme Court, in its research of the situation surveyed 9 previous circuit court decisions on this type of issue and took the position of the 8th Circuit Court, who held that a reasonable mistake about the law was still sufficient to allow for a search even though the other 8 Circuit Courts surveyed all disagreed. The North Carolina State Supreme Court overturned the ruling of the North Carolina Court of Appeals, calling the search valid. Mr. Heien, now represented by the Rutherford Institute of Virginia, a group that fights to preserve individuals civil liberties petitioned the US Supreme Court to hear the case, filing a 24 page amicus brief. On October 6, 2014 the US Supreme Court heard the case of Heien v. North Carolina and on December 15, it decided 8-1 in favor of the State of North Carolina.

    So, let’s look at some prior case history regarding the 4th Amendment. We’ll look at landmark decisions as well as cases quoted as relevant to this one.

    For starters, we need to go back to June 10, 1968 when the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in Terry v. Ohio. In short, the court determined that Police may stop a person if they have a reasonable suspicion that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime. Additionally, they may do a surface frisk for weapons if they have reasonable suspicion that the person is armed.

    Most similar to the Heien case, we fast forward to 1979 and Michigan v. DeFillippo. It involves vague Detroit laws, drugs, a hooker and a motion to suppress evidence. It’s a fun read. Ultimately the court held that despite searching an individual based on a reasonable suspicion that a law that was declared unconstitutionally vague post fact was being violated, the arrest on possession of drugs was still valid.

    Another case referenced was 1809’s US v. Riddle. It’s complicated, but again involves the validity of the probable cause that led to the search and the intent to commit a crime.

    Lastly, we have Ornelas v. United States from 1996. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, writing for the majority held that appellate courts must review probable cause determinations for warrantless searches “de novo”. What this means is that the appellate courts are also required to look for lower courts that made errors in applying the law properly. There’s a lot to digest in these decisions and it’s way too much for here, but if you’re interested, look them up.

    Back to the present; Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only justice to dissent writing, “I would hold that determining whether a search or seizure is reasonable requires evaluating an officer’s understanding of the facts against the actual state of the law.” “What matters is the rule of law, not an officer’s conception of the rule of law”. Departing from this tradition means further eroding the Fourth Amendment’s protection of civil liberties in a context where that protection has already been worn down. Traffic stops like those at issue here can be “annoy*ing, frightening, and perhaps humiliating.”

    A rarity here, but I agree with Justice Sotomayor that this was the wrong decision.

    Our liberties continue to be eroded and a division between members of law enforcement and the general public widens. Not that it’s the fault of law enforcement. Specifically the police had nothing to do with this ruling and the blame sits firmly in the laps of the 8 justices of the Supreme Court who thought this was the appropriate decision. But when being mistaken about a law is handled one way for law enforcement and another way for the general population, you might start to wonder why that is. And if you take this a bit closer to home in dear old New York State, you might wonder if legislation that is written in an unclear manner like NYSAFE might just benefit from this ruling and create some opportunities for enforcement that previously didn’t exist. And no, that doesn’t apply to all police officers; but in their job, just like my job, there are individuals who will do what they can to get the attention of their superiors and further their career.

    I have some key takeaway’s from researching this decision. The first is about Terry frisks. I didn’t realize that “reasonable suspicion that someone could be armed” is a requirement. Additionally, and I’ve know this for a while, but will share it with you – NEVER CONSENT TO SEARCHES. EVER. Nicholas Heien was an idiot for consenting to a search when he knew he had drugs in his car.


    This article was written by Andy Carney exclusively for NYShenaniguns.com. This Article or any parts contained may not be reproduced or used in any way in whole or in part without the express written permission of the author and NYShenaniguns.com. You may however link to this Article.
    Last edited by usmcveteran; 01-31-2015, 09:52 AM.

    • Meketrefe
      #8
      Meketrefe commented
      Editing a comment
      Nice article. Thanks.

    • phritz
      #9
      phritz commented
      Editing a comment
      Thanks for posting that.

    • DarthVader
      #10
      DarthVader commented
      Editing a comment
      That was a great article to read USMC,Thanks for posting this for all of us to read..

      Clarence
    Posting comments is disabled.

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