Heien v. North Carolina

Posted: December 27, 2014 by beguide in case summaries

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WHAT HAPPENED: Heien is a criminal defendant who was arrested for drug possession. North Carolina is the criminal agency prosecuting Hein for said drug possession. Heien was pulled over for driving with one broken taillight. During the stop, the police officer searched Heien’s car and found illegal drugs.   Later, it was determined that driving with one taillight is not against the law in North Carolina, so Hein should have never been pulled over to begin with.

WHY IS THIS BEFORE THE SUPREME COURT: The Fourth Amendment puts limitations on when, where, why, and how the police can search the vehicle of a person who is pulled over. Ordinarily, the police are allowed to search a person’s car when the car is stopped for a traffic violation; however, the police have significantly less authority when the defendant is stopped for actions that are technically not illegal. The issue here is whether or not the search should have been allowed when it originated out of a policeman’s mistake.

WHAT ARE THE RAMIFICATIONS OF THIS DECISION: Police are limited by the Fourth Amendment and the warrant requirement when searching the property of citizens; however, the police have something called the “good faith exception” that serves as an escape valve for searches that are technically bad but done in good faith. One would have to wonder whether a policeman, who is tasked with knowing the law, would be given such leeway when the law that they are tasked with enforcing is interpreted incorrectly. One could argue that this extends the good faith extension too broadly and into conduct that police could take advantage of.

WHAT WAS THE RULING: The Court ruled 9-1 in favor of North Carolina. Justice Roberts issues a majority opinion that held that the 4th Amendment is based on reasonableness and the mistake by the officer was objectively reasonable in light of the circumstances. Justice Kagan issues a concurrence that agreed with the holding, but made the test for reasonableness a bit stricter against the police than the majority opinion and limited this case to the specific facts of an officer’s mistake in arresting the defendant for legal conduct. Justice Sodomayor had the lone dissenting vote in which she broadly worried that 4th amendment protections were eroded by the holding.

THE GOOD GUYS WON IF YOU: are a lazy police officer with a bad memory.

THE BAD GUYS WON IF YOU: are the kind of person who likes to drive your drugs around in a crappy car.

WHO WAS RIGHT: Nazim correctly picked the holding, but believed the decision would lead to general disorder and chaos. Needless to say, the jury is still out on the last part.


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