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Fourth Amendment Under Attack, Again

Friday / January 16, 2015

After the October 6, 2014 argument in front of the United States Supreme Court, attorneys for Nicholas Heien and the attorneys for the state of North Carolina finally received a decision on December 15, 2014 for the Heien v. North Carolina case. The United States Supreme Court affirmed the North Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in the lower case docket. The decision was an overwhelming 8-1 majority, with Justice Sotomayor filing the only dissenting opinion.


Nicholas Heien and another passenger, Javier Vasquez, were driving on an interstate in North Carolina where Sergeant Darisse was on duty and looking for “criminal indicators of drivers and passengers.” After Darisse began following the car, he noticed the car only had one working brake light; Darisse believed this to be a violation of local traffic laws. While issuing a ticket, Darisse felt that Vasquez and Heien were behaving suspiciously and asked Heien if he could search Heien’s car, where Darisse found cocaine and arrested the two men for cocaine trafficking.


But here is the kicker: having one broken brake light is not a traffic violation in North Carolina. So was this a lawful traffic stop, search, and arrest? The North Carolina Court of Appeals explained that the North Carolina laws require only one working brake light, and because Heien did in fact have one working brake light Darisse should not have even pulled Heien over, as he did not have any objectively reasonable justification for a traffic stop.


Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court did not agree with this reasoning. Following the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule, writing for the majority, Chief Justice Roberts explained that a police officer’s reasonable mistake of law can create individualized suspicion, which is required by the Fourth Amendment to justify a traffic stop based on that understanding.


Although each state must follow this ruling, remember that you not only have rights in your private home, but also as a driver or passenger in a car. It is easy to make mistakes during a stressful traffic stop, but the Fourth Amendment’s purpose is to protect you, especially when you are confronted by a police officer. If you or anyone you know has been charged with a crime, immediately seek an attorney’s help to ensure the accused’s rights are protected. To schedule a no obligation consultation with my office, visit my website at: or by calling me at 480-331-7568.

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