Supreme Court to Consider Whether Police Ignorance of the Law Justifies Stop

October 3, 2014 12:00 am

Media Contact
125 Broad Street
18th Floor
New York, NY 10004
United States

Case Involving Mistaken Traffic Stop in North Carolina to Be Heard by Justices on Monday

October 2, 2014

CONTACT: 212-549-2666,

WASHINGTON – On Monday, October 6, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a North Carolina case that asks whether a traffic stop based on a police officer’s mistaken understanding of traffic laws violates the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable searches and seizures.

A friend-of-the-court brief submitted by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of North Carolina, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Cato Institute argues that a mistake of law can never supply the reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing that the Fourth Amendment requires in order to justify a traffic stop.

“Ignorance of the law is not an excuse for motorists, and it shouldn’t be an excuse for the police, either,” said ACLU-NC Legal Director Chris Brook.

The defendant, Nicholas Heien, was the passenger in a car that was stopped by the police because the car, which he owned, had only one working tail light, which the police officer mistakenly believed was a violation of North Carolina law. (One working tail light is legal in North Carolina.) After conducting a search, police subsequently found cocaine and charged Heien with drug trafficking. The North Carolina Court of Appeals overturned the decision, finding that the mistaken stop violated Heien’s Fourth Amendment rights. The North Carolina Supreme Court later reversed that ruling, 4-3, prompting an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Read the ACLU brief in Heien v. North Carolina here:

By completing this form, I agree to receive occasional emails per the terms of the ACLU’s privacy policy.

The latest in Criminal Law Reform

ACLU's Vision

The American Civil Liberties Union is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.

Learn More About Criminal Law Reform

Criminal Law Reform issue image

The Criminal Law Reform Project seeks to end harsh policies and racial inequities in the criminal justice system.