Today, our firm filed an amicus curiae brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in support of a North Carolina man who challenged the constitutionality of his traffic stop. A police officer pulled Heien over because his car’s right rear brake light was not functioning properly. However, North Carolina law requires only one working rear “lamp.”
The Supreme Court of North Carolina had ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires only that the police act “reasonably,” based on a judicial evaluation of the “totality of the circumstances.” Applying a type of freestanding balancing test derived from past Supreme Court cases, the court decided that it believed the police officer’s alleged mistake of law was a reasonable one. Thus, the old maxim has been revised to “ignorance of the law is no excuse — unless you are the one enforcing the law.”
According to this view of the Fourth Amendment, the Constitution protects only a “right to privacy,” which is balanced against the government’s interest in violating the right. Ordinarily, the privacy intrusion is deemed insignificant, and the governmental interests are deemed “compelling.” Here, the government’s interest was “traffic safety.”
However, in two recent cases, U.S. v. Jones and Florida v. Jardines, the Supreme Court has begun to return Fourth Amendment jurisprudence to its original property basis, and our brief urges the Court to continue that trend in this case.
Our brief argues that the Fourth Amendment be understood to protect property rights, not some judge’s view of a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Applying this property basis, if the government does not have a superior property right to the person or thing to be searched or seized, then the search or seizure is per se unreasonable. Judges do not have the authority to decide that traffic safety is more important than property rights.
Since Heien was violating no law when he was stopped, the state objectively had no property interest in his person or in his car. For that reason alone, the stop violated the Fourth Amendment, regardless of how “reasonable” some North Carolina judges subjectively believed the police had acted.