Students from the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic traveled with Professor Jeffrey Fisher to Washington D.C. this week for oral arguments in the clinic’s case Heien v. North Carolina. At issue in the case was whether a police officer’s mistake of law can provide the individualized suspicion that the Fourth Amendment requires.
The clinic represented the petitioner in the case, Nicholas Brady Heien, who was pulled over in North Carolina back in 2009 for having a rear brake light out. During the stop, the officers found cocaine in the car, so the State charged Heien with cocaine trafficking. Heien responded that the traffic stop violated the Fourth Amendment — and thus that the evidence the officers found had to be suppressed — because North Carolina law requires vehicles to have only one working brake light. The North Carolina Supreme Court did not disagree with Heien’s reading of state law, but it held that the officer nonetheless had the reasonable suspicion of criminal activity that the Fourth Amendment requires to conduct a traffic stop because the officer’s mistake of law was reasonable.
“Governmental officers should be presumed to know the law, at least as well as the citizens,” argued Professor Fisher before the Court. “When questions about individualized suspicion arise under the Fourth Amendment, they should be addressed against the backdrop of the correct interpretation of the law, not simply any plausible reading an officer might have.”
Prior to oral arguments, clinic students Stephen Richards ’15, Cynthia Barmore ’15, and Chelsea Priest ’15 researched the arguments and drafted the merits brief under the supervision of Professor Fisher.
“Being able to travel to DC to watch the Heien argument was a terrific opportunity,” Richards said. “The argument at turns surprised, enthused, and frustrated me. But ultimately, watching Jeff argue and the Justices engage the arguments we had spent so much time thinking on was just a supremely (pun intended) cool experience. Every lawyer ought to go to the Court and watch at least one argument; it’s an experience not to be missed.”
Barmore agreed, “I’m so glad I had the chance to work on Heien. Having the opportunity to contribute to the briefing and then see that work come to life at oral argument was an incredible learning experience.”
A decision in Heien v. North Carolina is expected later in the term. ◊