DOBSON — A drug case that originated in Surry County will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which Sheriff Graham Atkinson says is a first for the county and will set the tone for search procedures nationwide.
Local convictions have played a role in establishing case law in the N.C. Supreme Court and the state Court of Appeals. “But it’s the first I know of to make it to a hearing of the U.S. Supreme Court,” Atkinson, a local law enforcement veteran of more than 29 years, said of Heien vs. North Carolina.
It is set for oral argument in October before the high court in Washington. The issue before the court involves whether a local narcotics officer had probable cause to search a car with only one workable brake light, in which cocaine subsequently was discovered.
The case stems from the April 29, 2009 arrest of Nicholas Brady Heien on Interstate 77 by Sgt. Matt Darisse of the Surry County Sheriff’s Office.
Darisse had been observing traffic on the interstate that morning for “criminal indicators” of drivers and passengers, according to an earlier petition filed with the N.C. Supreme Court on Heien’s behalf.
The officer spotted a Ford Escort, owned by Heien but driven by another man, Maynor Javier Vasquez. The two were en route to West Virginia, with Heien asleep in the back seat.
Darisse thought the driver appeared “stiff and nervous” and then saw that one of the car’s brake lights did not illuminate when it approached a slower vehicle, the petition states.
Based on the improper equipment assumption, Darisse pulled the Escort over and informed Heien and Vasquez that he did so because of the non-functioning brake light. Another officer arrived at the scene and the two searched the vehicle after Heien gave his consent.
The search lasted about 40 minutes and turned up a plastic sandwich baggie containing cocaine.
Heien, 20 years old at the time, was charged with trafficking cocaine and Vasquez also was charged, later pleading guilty to attempted cocaine trafficking.
At his trial, a motion was filed on behalf of Heien to suppress the evidence officers found in the car, based on the contention that the search violated the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and was therefore invalid. That amendment permits law enforcement personnel to stop a motor vehicle and its occupants in such a manner only when there is at least reasonable suspicion that a law has been violated.
The trial court rejected the defendant’s request and Heien pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking — but reserved the right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress.
On appeal, the N.C. Court of Appeals reversed that decision, based on the fact that North Carolina statutes require vehicles to have “a stop lamp,” which means a car with only one working brake light was in compliance. The argument to suppress also was based on tradition, in which a mistake of law does not support law enforcement’s claim of probable cause to make a stop.
However, the N.C. Supreme Court later reversed the decision. It ruled that a stop should not violate the Fourth Amendment if officers were “objectively reasonable” — even if mistaken — about the legality of a partially broken taillight.
Since then, officials in 19 states and the District of Columbia — most recently the Wisconsin attorney general this week — have signed on to a brief in support of North Carolina’s claim.
Sheriff Atkinson is not worried about the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court justices ruling that the search in Surry County was illegal.
“I’m comfortable, based on the facts of the case, that they’re going to find that the stop was appropriate and everything done after that was appropriate,” he said Wednesday afternoon.
Darisse, who is a veteran officer, has a reputation locally for his ability to accurately interpret the rules of search and seizure, according to the sheriff.
And convictions in previous cases from Surry which were appealed to higher courts have been upheld, Atkinson said. “We’re batting 1,000 when we’ve been challenged in the appellate courts.”
No one from Surry will be involved in the upcoming oral arguments before the Supreme Court, which will be handled by the U.S. solicitor general. “We don’t have any part in it once it gets to that point,” Atkinson added.
The ultimate decision will serve to either reinforce or alter existing practices for traffic stops across the country, although the sheriff believes the latest court ruling in North Carolina will stand.
Officers often rely on equipment violations to stop motorists, who many times consent to searches that lead to evidence of crimes. But civil libertarians worry that a relaxed standard for legal traffic stops might bring abuses and harassment of innocent drivers.
“I think it will be good case law for the future,” Atkinson said of the pending ruling in Washington.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.