There once was a day when reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop was based upon objective evidence that the suspect had committed a traffic violation. However, the times seem to be changing in this regard. Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP attorney K. Michael Gaerte and co-author James J. Bell discuss a ruling that is challenging what constitutes a police officer’s reasonable suspicion to stop a vehicle in their recent “Inside the Criminal Case” column for the Indiana Lawyer.
In one example, Cash v. State (1992), a police officer stopped a suspect’s car because the license plate “did not look secure.” This stop led to the driver’s arrest for possession of marijuana. Although the license plate was off-center and only fastened by a single bolt, it was in a “horizontal position” and was “clearly visible.” The police officer believed that it was a violation of the law to not have a secure license plate. However, the Indiana Code made it clear that if the license plate was secure and in a horizontal position, there was no violation of law. The Court of Appeals noted that the officer had “imposed subjective conditions plainly beyond the scope of the regulation” and suppressed the stop.
North Carolina v. Heien
Gaerte and Bell muse that it was an innocent time before Lady Gaga, reality TV and North Carolina v. Heien (2014), which gave police officers increased discretion to make traffic stops. In Heien, the question presented was “whether . . . a mistake of law can nonetheless give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to uphold the seizure under the Fourth Amendment.” The Supreme Court of the United States held that a reasonable mistake of law was sufficient for a vehicle stop under the Fourth Amendment and validated a police officer’s stop of a vehicle for only having one functional brake light (even though North Carolina law only required one working brake light for the car to be lawfully on the road.)
Heien has had an effect on Indiana cases as well, Gaerte and Bell explain. For example, in Williams v. State, the Court of Appeals originally reversed the denial of a motion to suppress when a law enforcement officer stopped a motorist for what later proved to be legal conduct under the Indiana Code. However, on rehearing, after the Heien decision, the Court of Appeals reversed its prior ruling stating that the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable and that the Fourth Amendment was not violated.
So in the end, Gaerte and Bell say Heien makes it easier for a police officer to justify why he or she pulled over a vehicle. It is no longer reasonable suspicion of a traffic violation that will get a motorist pulled over, but reasonable suspicion of what a police officer thought was a traffic violation that lands a driver on the side of the road.