State v. Heien (Search and Seizure)

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State v. Hein


On the morning of April 29, 2009, Sergeant Matt Darisse and Officer Ward of the Surry County Sheriff’s Department (North Carolina) observed a Ford Escort apply its brakes when approaching a slower vehicle on Interstate 77. State v. Heien, 366 N.C. 271, 272 (2012). The Escort’s right rear brake light failed to illuminate in the process of braking, so Sergeant Darisse decided to stop the Escort. Id. After the Escort came to a complete stop, Sergeant Darisse approached the vehicle and noticed that the brake light “flickered on.” Id.

Sergeant Darisse initiated a conversation with the driver of the vehicle, Maynor Javier Vasquez, and he informed Vasquez that he was being stopped “for a non-functioning brake light.” Id. Sergeant Darisse then added that he would only issue a warning for the malfunctioning brake light if Vasquez’s license and registration “checked out.” Id. Since both the license and registration did check out, the officer proceeded to give Vasquez a warning ticket. Id. During the stop, Sergeant Darisse began to suspect that the Escort might contain contraband because he received conflicting information regarding the destination of the vehicle from Vasquez and his passenger, the defendant, Nicholas Brady Heien. When Sergeant Darisse approached the vehicle, he also noticed Heien lying down in the backseat of the vehicle under a blanket. State v. Heien, 741 S.E.2d 1, 5 (N.C. Ct. App. 2013). Based on the conflicting information as well as the bizarre behavior of Heien, Sergeant Darisse asked, and was granted permission to search the vehicle. State v. Heien, 366 N.C. at 272; State v. Heien, 741 S.E.2d at 5.

Upon searching the vehicle, Sergeant Darisse found a blue duffle bag in the “back hatch” area of the Escort. Id. In “one of the side compartments” of the bag, Sergeant Darisse found “a white plastic grocery bag” containing “a sandwich bag wrapped in a paper towel he later determined to contain what “appeared to be… cocaine.” Id. A field test of the powered substance confirmed that it was in fact cocaine. Id. at 272-73. Upon that discovery, both Vasquez and Heien were arrested and charged with trafficking cocaine. Id. at 273.

Heien sought to suppress the evidence obtained during the search of the Escort, alleging that the stop was an illegal seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution and Sections 19 and 20 of Article I of the North Carolina Constitution. Id. Heien argued that the North Carolina General Statutes do not require that both brake lights be in good working order. Id. He argued that, because of the aforementioned reasons, the stop was unreasonable and the subsequent search should be deemed unconstitutional. Id.

In 2010, the Surry County Superior Court found that the officer’s stop was valid and denied the motion to suppress. State v. Heien, 741 S.E.2d at 2. Heien then pled guilty to attempted trafficking in cocaine by transportation and possession; however, Heien preserved his right to seek review of the denial of his motion to suppress on appeal. Id. The subsequent appeal resulted in the Court of Appeals of North Carolina reversing Heien’s conviction, finding that the traffic stop did not arise out of reasonable suspicion. Id. Upon certiorari review, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision and remanded the case for further judgment. Id. On remand, the appellate court addressed Heien’s other challenges to the initial search that led to his conviction. Id. The following represents the appellate court’s analysis for its decision on remand. Id.



Length of the Stop

Heien first argued that the traffic stop was unduly prolonged because the continuation of the investigation after Sergeant Darisse wrote the warning ticket. Heien argued that the extended investigation after the ticket was written and given to Vasquez was not based on a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity had been or was being committed. The Court explained that the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution as well as Article I, Section 20 of the North Carolina Constitution guarantee the right of people to be secure in their person and property and free from unreasonable seizures. A traffic stop is permitted if the officer has a “reasonable articulable suspicion” that there is criminal activity or when a motorist commits a violation in the presence of the officer. Under such circumstances, the temporary detention of a motorist during a traffic stop is recognized as a permissible seizure. Roadside questioning under such circumstances also does not trigger the need for Miranda warnings. The Court further cited to case law that supports the proposition that even after reasonable, articulable suspicion for the stop exists, the officer must have reasonable and articulable suspicion in order to justify further delay. Moreover, the Court cited case law that after documentation has been returned to its owners, as long as the individual is aware that they are free to leave, the officer may continue to engage in “non-coercive” conversation and may ask questions or request consent to a search.

The Court held that under the present circumstances, the encounter was not unduly delayed because the trial court found that the tone of Sergeant Darisse and Officer Ward was conversational and non-confrontational and both Heien and Vasquez were unrestrained during the encounter. In addition, the Court held that Heien was aware that the initial purpose for the stop had concluded and further conversation was consensual. The Court also went on to state that the total time between Sergeant Darisse initiating the stop and requesting a search of the vehicle was less than thirteen minutes, which cannot reasonably be deemed as unduly delay.

Scope of the Search

Heien also argued that the scope of the search was unconstitutional. Heien asserted that the officers should have informed him that they were searching for narcotics so that he could have issued a “limiting instruction.” The Court found that argument to be unpersuasive because there is no requirement for an officer to explicitly inform a defendant that he has a right to refuse a search, nor is there a requirement for an officer to inform a defendant of what he is searching for. Furthermore, the Court held that any reasonable person would understand that Sergeant Darisse was searching for weapons, cash, or contraband. The Court held that the defendant’s wish to limit the search is irrelevant.


The Court ultimately concluded that the officers, while on routine traffic patrol, properly stopped Vasquez and Heien. In addition, the Court concluded that a reasonable person would understand that he was free to leave or refuse consent to a search. Thus, the Court upheld the trial court’s original ruling that the search was consensual and Heien’s motion to suppress should be denied and his conviction upheld.