Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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E.g., 09/26/2021
E.g., 09/26/2021

Affirming State v. Heien, 366 N.C. 271 (Dec. 14, 2012), the Court held that because an officer’s mistake of law was reasonable, it could support a vehicle stop. In Heien, an officer stopped a vehicle because one of its two brake lights was out, but a court later determined that a single working brake light was all the law required. The case presented the question whether such a mistake of law can give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment. The Court answered the question in the affirmative. It explained:

[W]e have repeatedly affirmed, “the ultimate touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is ‘reasonableness.’” To be reasonable is not to be perfect, and so the Fourth Amendment allows for some mistakes on the part of government officials, giving them “fair leeway for enforcing the law in the community’s protection.” We have recognized that searches and seizures based on mistakes of fact can be reasonable. The warrantless search of a home, for instance, is reasonable if undertaken with the consent of a resident, and remains lawful when officers obtain the consent of someone who reasonably appears to be but is not in fact a resident. By the same token, if officers with probable cause to arrest a suspect mistakenly arrest an individual matching the suspect’s description, neither the seizure nor an accompanying search of the arrestee would be unlawful. The limit is that “the mistakes must be those of reasonable men.”

But reasonable men make mistakes of law, too, and such mistakes are no less compatible with the concept of reasonable suspicion. Reasonable suspicion arises from the combination of an officer’s understanding of the facts and his understanding of the relevant law. The officer may be reasonably mistaken on either ground. Whether the facts turn out to be not what was thought, or the law turns out to be not what was thought, the result is the same: the facts are outside the scope of the law. There is no reason, under the text of the Fourth Amendment or our precedents, why this same result should be acceptable when reached by way of a reasonable mistake of fact, but not when reached by way of a similarly reasonable mistake of law.

Slip op. at 5-6 (citations omitted). The Court went on to find that the officer’s mistake of law was objectively reasonable, given the state statutes at issue:

Although the North Carolina statute at issue refers to “a stop lamp,” suggesting the need for only a single working brake light, it also provides that “[t]he stop lamp may be incorporated into a unit with one or more other rear lamps.” N. C. Gen. Stat. Ann. §20–129(g) (emphasis added). The use of “other” suggests to the everyday reader of English that a “stop lamp” is a type of “rear lamp.” And another subsection of the same provision requires that vehicles “have all originally equipped rear lamps or the equivalent in good working order,” §20–129(d), arguably indicating that if a vehicle has multiple “stop lamp[s],” all must be functional.

Slip op. at 12-13.

The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to suppress where a stop was based on an officer’s mistake of law that was not objectively reasonable. An officer stopped a vehicle registered in Tennessee for driving without an exterior mirror on the driver’s side of the vehicle. The officer was not aware that the relevant statute—G.S. 20-126(b)—does not apply to vehicles registered out-of-state. A subsequent consent search led to the discovery of controlled substances and drug charges. On appeal, the State conceded, and the court concluded, following Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014), that the officer’s mistake of law was not reasonable. Looking for guidance in other jurisdictions that have interpreted Heien, the court noted that cases from other jurisdictions “establish that in order for an officer’s mistake of law while enforcing a statute to be objectively reasonable, the statute at issue must be ambiguous.” “Moreover,” the court noted, “some courts applying Heien have further required that there be an absence of settled case law interpreting the statute at issue in order for the officer’s mistake of law to be deemed objectively reasonable.” The concluded that the statue at issue was clear and unambiguous; as a result “a reasonable officer reading this statute would understand the requirement that a vehicle be equipped with a driver’s side exterior mirror does not apply to vehicles that—like Defendant’s vehicle—are registered in another state.”

An officer lacked reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant’s vehicle. A “be on the lookout” call was issued after a citizen caller reported that there was a cup of beer in a gold Toyota sedan with license number VST-8773 parked at the Kangaroo gas station at the corner of Wake Forest Road and Ronald Drive. Although the complainant wished to remain anonymous, the communications center obtained the caller’s name as Kim Creech. An officer responded and observed a vehicle fitting the caller’s description. The officer followed the driver as he pulled out of the lot and onto Wake Forest Road and then pulled him over. The officer did not observe any traffic violations. After a test indicated impairment, the defendant was charged with DWI. Noting that the officer’s sole reason for the stop was Creech’s tip, the court found that the tip was not reliable in its assertion of illegality because possessing an open container of alcohol in a parking lot is not illegal. It concluded: “Accordingly, Ms. Creech’s tip contained no actual allegation of criminal activity.” It further found that the officer’s mistaken belief that the tip included an actual allegation of illegal activity was not objectively reasonable. Finally, the court concluded that even if the officer’s mistaken belief was reasonable, it still would find the tip insufficiently reliable. Considering anonymous tip cases, the court held that although Creech’s tip provided the license plate number and location of the car, “she did not identify or describe defendant, did not provide any way for [the] Officer . . . to assess her credibility, failed to explain her basis of knowledge, and did not include any information concerning defendant’s future actions.”

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