Why did the SCOTUS grant cert in Heien

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Good afternoon:

Annie Cabani asked the following question:

It’s baffling, too, why they granted certiorari in this particular case. Apparently, the NC Supreme Court had achieved the same result as the SCOTUS, so why didn’t they just leave it alone?

It’s like they went out of their way to issue this constitutional ruling (and a quick one … only two months) when they didn’t even need to, yet they slam their door on folks who really need to be heard. What’s up with that?


They had an agenda. They have been looking for a case with a suitably appropriate set of facts upon which they could base their decision carving out an exception to the reasonable-suspicion rule and the exclusionary rule, which is a judicial remedy that excludes evidence seized in violation of that rule (and others). They wanted the Heien case from NC because it only applies in NC. The federal courts and all other state courts are not bound by it. They accepted review because they wanted to establish that rule for all courts.

I believe this new rule that exempts operation of the exclusionary rule for reasonable mistakes by police regarding what is unlawful is absolutely awful. Only time will tell what constitutes reasonable ignorance or stupidity. Nothing good will come of this bizarre decision.


The SCOTUS has the power of discretionary review, which means they get to choose the cases they are willing to review. With few exceptions, intermediate courts of appeal do not have the power of discretionary review. They have to accept review because litigants in the trial, where all trials take place, have a right to appeal if they are unhappy with the result.

Before each term, the nine justices of the SCOTUS meet and decide what new legal rules they want to establish and what existing rules they want to eliminate or change. Each term they receive thousands of cert petitions, which are applications for discretionary review. They are called petitions (requests) for a writ (order) of certiorari (granting review). They review them for cases containing the issues they want to address. Within that group they look for cases with the best set of facts to support the decision they want to reach. They grant cert in those cases and deny cert in the rest. At least four votes in favor of granting cert are necessary for a petition to be granted.

All state supreme courts have the same power but they call the requests for review petitions for discretionary review.

A decision by a state supreme court is binding authority on every court within that state. It is non-binding authority on other state courts and the federal courts.

A SCOTUS decision interpreting federal law, the Constitution or its amendments, including the Bill of Rights, is binding authority on every court in the land. A decision by a federal circuit court of appeal interpreting federal law, the Constitution or its amendments, including the Bill of Rights, is only binding on courts in that circuit.

Procedural History of Heien

The following summary was prepared by the official Reporter of Decisions:

Following a suspicious vehicle, Sergeant Matt Darisse noticed that only one of the vehicle’s brake lights was working and pulled the driver over. While issuing a warning ticket for the broken brake light, Darisse became suspicious of the actions of the two occupants and their answers to his questions. Petitioner Nicholas Brady Heien, the car’s owner, gave Darisse consent to search the vehicle. Darisse found cocaine, and Heien was arrested and charged with attempted trafficking. The trial court denied Heien’s motion to suppress the seized evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, concluding that the vehicle’s faulty brake light gave Darisse reasonable suspicion to initiate the stop. The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the relevant code provision, which requires that a car be “equipped with a stop lamp,” N. C. Gen.Stat. Ann. §20–129(g), requires only a single lamp—which Heien’s vehicle had—and therefore the justification for the stop was objectively unreasonable. Reversing in turn, the State Supreme Court held that, even assuming no violation of the state law
had occurred, Darisse’s mistaken understanding of the law was reasonable, and thus the stop was valid.

Note that this summary is not part of the decision itself. Better to read the opinion itself and cite from it rather than the summary that is not binding on anyone. Some summaries are better than others. Woe unto the law student or lawyer who gets it wrong by relying on the summary. Lawyers fondly refer to such moments as get-out-your-checkbook time.

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4 Responses to Why did the SCOTUS grant cert in Heien

  1. Annie Cabani says:

    Thanks, Professor. I was writing a thoughtful response last night, but it got wiped with one wrong move on my keyboard and is long gone. By that point I was beat and had to hit the sack.

    In short: I did not know the SCOTUS literally sets an agenda each year!! That seems like a very odd procedure for a court of last resort. But then again, I suppose it could make sense if they base their agenda on the gazillions of cases they had to turn away in preceding years (and I’d assume – perhaps naively – that they leave wiggle room to accommodate “non-agenda” cases to a significant degree). The cynic in me, though, suspects that it’s far more political than that.

    Also: It’s very troubling to me that THIS issue may have made it onto the Court’s “agenda” for this term. I mean, I think it’s axiomatic that “ignorance of the law is no excuse” for all of us citizens who don’t wear badges. But it doesn’t make sense to me that ignorance of the law IS an excuse for those given the power to enforce the law – i.e., those who, by any “reasonable standard,” SHOULD be accountable for knowing what the heck the law is that they’re supposedly enforcing!

    Finally: I still haven’t finished reading the entire decision, but I was struck by HOW FAR BACK the SCOTUS reached for precedent in the early part of the majority’s opinion. That seemed pretty unusual … like they were working very, VERY hard to reach the conclusion they did.

    Thanks again for your response. Sorry the question apparently wasn’t of interest to many other readers, but your insight was very interesting to me.

  2. Malisha says:

    This just gave the carte blanche to our new nazi police state.

    The cops can retroactively justify anything now simply by saying that they had a suspicion about something and if they were wrong, well, that’s OK because eight out of nine monarchs on our High Court think that kind of unbridled, end-run-around-due-process police power is just what our future ordered. And since the NeoFeudalists have already got their jackboots on the ground and their flags stuck in the soil, who’s to say that’s incorrect, Rome?

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