mistake of law

All posts tagged mistake of law

Yesterday the Supreme Court decided the Heien case, and as predicted, the Justices ruled in favor of the government in a very limited holding.  Stating that “[t]o be reasonable is not to be perfect,” the Court allowed for a police officer’s reasonable suspicion to be based on a  reasonable mistake of law, but also pointed out that very few mistakes of law by a police officer will ever be deemed reasonable.  The only real surprise here was the lopsided vote: it was an 8-1 opinion, with only Justice Sotomayor in dissent.  Here is the key passage from the majority opinion:

Contrary to the suggestion of Heien and amici, our decision does not discourage officers from learning the law. The Fourth Amendment tolerates only reasonable mistakes, and those mistakes—whether of fact or of law—must be objectively reasonable. We do not examine the subjective understanding of the particular officer involved.  Cf. Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806, 813 (1996). And the inquiry is not as forgiving as the one employed in the distinct context of deciding whether an officer is entitled to qualified immunity for a constitutional or statutory violation. Thus, an officer can gain no Fourth Amendment advantage through a sloppy study of the laws he is duty-bound to enforce.

Indeed, the only two examples that the Court gives of a possible reasonable mistake of law are (1) when an officer relies on a law that is later overturned (as in the DeFillipo case that the Court cites), or (2) when an officer “suddenly confronts a situation in the field as to which the application of a statute is unclear”–such as seeing a Segway “whiz by” in a park and deciding whether the operator is violating a law against “vehicles in the park.”  The fact that the Court chose such an ancient and intractable legal puzzle as the vehicles in the park dilemma indicates that this doctrine will be limited to  truly ambiguous applications of the law.

Justice Kagan’s concurrence emphasizes this limitation, pointing out that the objective nature of the analysis means that “the government cannot defend an officer’s mistaken legal interpretation on the ground that the officer was unaware of or untrained in the law. And it means that, contrary to the dissenting opinion in the court below, an officer’s reliance on ‘an incorrect memo or training program from the police department’ makes no difference to the analysis.”

In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor echoes many of the concerns of the amici briefs in the case: “[o]ne 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.”  But in doing so she mis-states (perhaps intentionally) the majority’s decision. Heien does not allow police to seize a suspect anytime the law “may be susceptible to an interpretive question”–it will only apply when the law is so ambiguous that a well-informed police officer can make a reasonable mistake as to whether it prohibits certain behavior.

In the end, this case will (hopefully) not fundamentally change the way police activity is conducted, or the way it is reviewed by the courts.  No doubt prosecutors will try to stretch Heien in the coming years, attempting to fit all sorts of ignorant or sloppy police activity into its holding.  Given the language in the Heien decision, the lower courts should have no problem swatting those claims aside and keeping the Heien doctrine strictly limited to truly reasonable mistakes of law.