Near the start of its new term, the Supreme Court will hear argument in Heien v. North Carolina, which poses the question whether a police officer violated the Fourth Amendment when he performed a traffic stop based on a mistake of law. When the case was granted, I suggested that Heien involves the “other” rule of lenity–that is, the notion that government officers (not criminal defendants) should be given clear notice before suffering personal consequences for having performed illegal action. The briefs in the case have now been filed, and they contain a surprise: a significant chunk of the briefing revolves around founding-era customs law. That history provides a fascinating point of comparison for current law and practice.
Founding-era history makes its biggest appearance in the amicus brief for the United States. Here’s the background. At the founding, customs officials engaged in searches and seizures in order to confiscate illicit goods. Once confiscated, the goods were subject to forfeiture proceedings in which the putative owner could appear and defend the property. Federal statutes provided that, if the owner won the case, the court had the option of approving a “certificate” of “reasonable cause” or “probable cause” that would immunize the customs official from suit. The United States argues that these certificates regularly issued in cases where the seizure of goods was the result of a reasonable mistake of law.
Here is an excerpt from one of the statutes (Act of July 31, 1789, ch. 5, § 36, 1 Stat. 47) that the United States cites:
And when any prosecution shall be commenced on account of the seizure of any ship or vessel, goods, wares or merchandise, and judgment shall be given for the claimant or claimants; if it shall appear to the court before whom such prosecution shall be tried, that there was a reasonable cause of seizure, the same court shall cause a proper certificate or entry to be made thereof, and in such case the claimant shall not be entitled to costs, nor shall the person who made the seizure, or the prosecutor be liable to action, judgment or suit, on account of such seizure or prosecution.
And here’s a discussion of a key case, from the amicus brief for the United States:
In United States v. Riddle[,] a customs collector seized certain goods because he believed that a merchant who arranged their importation had violated a customs statute by creating a set of false invoices, even though the consignee declared the goods’ true value to customs officials. This Court held that the collector was incorrect to believe the false invoices violated the statute, concluding that “[t]he law did not intend to punish the intention, but the attempt to defraud the revenue.” Nevertheless, Chief Justice Marshall concluded that the customs inspector was entitled to a “certificate of probable cause” for the seizure because “the construction of the law was liable to some question.” “A doubt as to the true construction of the law,” Chief Justice Marshall explained, “is as reasonable a cause for seizure as a doubt respecting the fact.”
In his reply brief, petitioner argues in part that the relevant historical baseline is actually a common law rule that mistakes of law were no defense to suit. In addition, petitioner argues that immunity schemes are simply irrelevant to the question of reasonableness. If the founding-era statutes are analogous to any modern principle of law, petitioner argues, they are relevant not to the Reasonableness Clause of the Fourth Amendment, but rather to the modern doctrine of qualified immunity (that is, the non-constitutional doctrine that officers can generally be held personally liable for constitutional violations only if they have transgressed clearly established law). Here’s a key passage from petitioner’s reply brief:
The sole purpose of the Founding-era customs statutes was to immunize collectors from damages for concededly wrongful seizures. The statutes, that is, were nothing more than a precursor to the concept of qualified immunity now implemented on a more universal basis under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Even though the customs statutes used the term “probable cause” to implement the immunity they created, the circumstances under which courts found the statutes satisfied tell us no more about the meaning of “probable cause” under the Fourth Amendment than the circumstances under which modern courts immunize officers for “reasonable” illegal searches tell us about what the term “reasonable” means under the Fourth Amendment.
Petitioner’s argument about qualified immunity is of considerable academic interest. Some commentators think that founding-era Fourth Amendment practice is at least in tension with modern immunity doctrines, which generally allow Fourth Amendment plaintiffs to recover damages only if they can overcome qualified immunity. According to these scholars, a central purpose of the Fourth Amendment was to make officers personally liable at tort for “unreasonable” searches and seizures. But if reasonable mistakes of law could shield officers from liability, then qualified immunity jurisprudence starts to look more like a return to the founding than a break from it. Under both regimes, courts have the ability to make a precedential finding of unlawful official action, but then immunize the officer for having made a reasonable mistake of law.
But were these very early customs statutes constitutional? Or did they authorize impermissible post-search warrants — despite the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized“? There are many possible answers. To suggest a few, perhaps the Fourth Amendment wasn’t originally understood to guarantee any tort remedy against officers. Alternatively, the Fourth Amendment’s reference to “persons, houses, papers, and effects” might not have protected ships and cargo, perhaps based in part on an early notion of exigency. It’s also possible that a search cannot be unreasonable if it is based on a reasonable mistake of law — in which case, issuing a certificate would have been tantamount to finding no Fourth Amendment violation at all. The existence of “reasonable cause” would make the seizure itself reasonable.
Finally, the founding-era certificates might inspire new approaches to Fourth Amendment remedies today. One interesting feature of the certificates is that they issued in forfeiture proceedings initiated by customs officials, but in effect adjudicated private plaintiffs’ ability to bring damages lawsuits. In this way, the certificate process promoted efficiency by allowing the judicial system to avoid duplicative legal proceedings — much as though the officer had sought a declaratory judgment against the property owner. Something similar is imaginable today. In adjudicating suppression motions, for instance, judges could issue “certificates” to resolve issues that might arise in private damages actions against police. Assuming that such a practice would be constitutional, it would harness the effort that goes into suppression proceedings and use it to either avoid or facilitate resolution of potential damages suits.
Heien was always a fascinating and important case. The historical issues it raises only make it more so.