On April 29, 2010, Sergeant Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department was patrolling north on I-77. He identified a car that had a broken brake light out. The driver of the car was Maynor Javier Vasquez. Passenger Nicholas Heien was sleeping in the back seat. As Sergeant Darisse approached the vehicle, he observed driver Vasquez appeared nervous.
Upon approaching a slower moving vehicle, Sergeant Darisse noticed that Vasquez’s vehicle had a broken brake light. Sergeant Darisse activated his blue lights in an attempt to stop Vasquez. He reasonably believed Vasquez violated North Carolina’s traffic law because Vasquez was operating a vehicle with a broken brake light.
Vasquez pulled over and Sergeant Darisse began to routinely inspect the vehicle. While doing so, he observed Heien in the back seat taking a nap. Sergeant Darisse suspected that the vehicle might contain contraband. He begin questioning both Vasquez and Heien. Both of their stories did not add up. Sergeant Darisse asked Vasquez if he could search the vehicle. Both men agreed. Sergeant Darisse found cocaine within the vehicle.
Both parties were formally charged with drug trafficking and both pleaded guilty. However, Heien reserved his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling. The court held that the state’s traffic law required only one working stop brake light. Because Heien’s left brake was functional, the dysfunction of the right brake did not constitute a traffic law violation. The court held that the officer’s mistaken belief that a defendant had committed a traffic violation is not an objectively reasonable justification for a stop and that the evidence of the stop should have been suppressed under the exclusionary rule.
The decision was then appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court. The court reversed the lower court’s ruling and held that when an officer’s mistake of the law is reasonable, it may give rise to the reasonable suspicion required for a traffic stop of a vehicle under the Fourth Amendment.
Heien petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari. The writ was granted. The Supreme Court of the United States held that a police officer’s reasonable mistake of law gives rise to reasonable suspicion that justifies a traffic stop under the Fourth Amendment.
Impact of Heien Ruling on Ann Arbor DUI
Based on the Supreme Court’s ruling, an Ann Arbor police officer can stop a car based on a mistaken understanding of the law without violating the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately, the court’s ruling further erodes the protection of the Fourth Amendment of civil liberties and adds to the distrust between citizens and the police. A skilled defense attorney will now have to prove that the police officer’s mistake of the law was unreasonable in an attempt to have evidence suppressed. Many attorneys are successful in obtaining case dismissals based on the initial traffic stop violating some aspect of the 4th Amendment. However, under the new Supreme Court ruling, it may be more challenging to do so.
If you were initially pulled over for a traffic violation which later resulted in a DUI, consult with an attorney that is well versed in the Heien case and other Fourth Amendment rulings.. I invite you to contact me for a consultation. I provide legal representation to residents of Washtenaw County.
Heien v. North Carolina, 134 S. Ct. 1872 – 2014