Heien is a Fourth Amendment case involving a traffic stop for something that the officer incorrectly believed was a crime. Although the car should not have been stopped, the North Carolina courts upheld the police’s seizure of the car’s passenger’s illegal property because the police’s mistake in stopping the car was “reasonable.” Heien sought U.S. Supreme Court review, and CLDEF submitted an amicus curiae brief in support of his position. CLDEF’s brief critiqued the use of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test that has been routinely used by federal courts to justify intrusions of liberty through a multitude of subjective shades of grey. Instead, armed with an understanding that the Fourth Amendment protects property rights, the inquiry becomes objectively black and white — whether the government does or does not have a superior property interest in the person and/or vehicle it wishes to detain. Viewed in that light, the police had no right to stop someone who had violated no law, regardless of how “reasonable” an officer’s mistake may seem to a court.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not agree. On December 15, 2014, it held that the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable, and that his mistake alone justified the stop. We now live in a country where it is no defense for the citizen to be ignorant of the law, but the police may be ignorant of both the law and the facts.