Can you be stopped for breaking a law that does not exist?


Can you be stopped for breaking a law that does not exist?


The Supreme Court decided that you can be stopped for breaking a law that does not exist. An officer’s mistake of law can still provide reason to stop. In 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down Heien v. North Carolina. The court ruled that an officer’s ignorance of the law or mistake of law may still be a valid basis for a police stop—if the mistake was reasonable.

Heien was an appeal based on the actions of a police officer in North Carolina. The officer saw a vehicle driving down the highway with one broken brake light. The second brake light was, however, still working. Based on the broken brake light, the officer pulled the vehicle over. Heien was issued a warning for the broken brake light. The officer then asked for consent to search the vehicle, and found a bag of cocaine in the car. Heien was charged with cocaine trafficking.

At issue was the basis for the stop. North Carolina only requires “a stop lamp,” which the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled to mean a single brake lamp. The question before the Supreme Court was whether the stop was legal despite the fact that the officer relied on his mistake of the law to make the stop.

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures. In order to perform a stop, an officer must have a particularized and objective basis that an offense is occurring, has occurred, or is about to occur. Fourth Amendment evaluations center on reasonableness.

The Supreme Court ruled that reasonable mistakes of law can give rise to legal stops. In this case, the officer’s mistake of law was found to be objectively reasonable because another code section in the North Carolina statute requires that vehicles have all originally equipped rear lamps (plural) in good working order. While the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that the statute addressing the visibility of brake lights only required a single brake lamp, the court also ruled that it would be reasonable for an officer to believe that the law required two working brake lamps. The Supreme Court of the United States concluded that because the mistake of law was objectively reasonable, an officer could use that objectively reasonable mistake of law as a valid basis for a stop.

Justice Sotomayor was the only Supreme Court Justice who dissented. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote: “One is left to wonder… why an innocent citizen should be made to shoulder the burden of being seized whenever the law may be susceptible to an interpretive question.”

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Written by Benson Varghese
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Benson Varghese is the managing partner of Varghese Summersett PLLC, a Fort Worth, Texas DWI Defense Firm. Benson Varghese has been named a Top 100 Trial Attorney, Premier 100 Trial Attorney by the American Academy of Trial Attorneys, and received the 2015 AVVO Client’s Choice Award for DUI and DWI defense. Varghese Summersett PLLC is a boutique criminal defense firm that handles state criminal defense matters in Texas and federal criminal defense matters throughout the nation. For more information, visit or call (817) 203-2220.

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