At Hogan Eickhoff, we know that traffic stops are the most common form of police contact in the United States, and law enforcement often uses traffic stops as an opportunity to determine whether a driver is impaired, carrying contraband, or involved in some other illegal activity. The 4th Amendment to the, however, prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures and limits how and when officers can stop people and search them, their belongings, and their homes.
A police officer needs to have reasonable suspicion that a crime has recently been or is being committed in order to make a traffic stop. In addition, traffic stops can not be extended to conduct “fishing expeditions” to determine whether a driver has or is committing another offense. In addition, reasonable suspicion cannot be based on a mere hunch; it must be based on articulable facts.
State vs. Brown
A recent case decided by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals illustrates how Wisconsin case law has eroded citizen rights and allowed the police to use “magic words” to get around the strictures of the 4th Amendment. In State v. Brown, Courtney Brown was stopped by a Fond du Lac police officer at about 3 a.m. after the officer saw him driving out of a cul-de-sac of a closed business. The officer ran a check on the car and discovered that the car was a rental, and later testified that “people who traffic drugs often use rental cars.” The officer followed Brown’s vehicle, and initiated a traffic stop after observed Brown failing to properly stop at a stop sign.
During the traffic stop, the officer noticed that Brown was not wearing a seatbelt and decided to issue a warning for the no seat belt violation. He called two other officers to assist as safety officers. The officer ran a records check and learned that Brown had several drug arrests and had a conviction for armed robbery and intent to distribute cocaine.
The officer returned to the car, opened the door, and asked Brown to step out, and asked him if he could search him. Brown testified that he did not consent, and the officer testified that he did. Furthermore, the officer testified that he did not consider the stop to be “high-risk.” During the search, the officer found 13 bags of crack cocaine and about $500 in cash. Brown moved to have this evidence suppressed on the grounds that the traffic stop was unlawful and that the stop was unlawfully extended beyond its initial purpose. The trial court denied both motions, and Brown was convicted. Brown appealed the trial court’s decision regarding the extension of the stop, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s decision.
The Court of Appeals largely based its decision on Wisconsin case law that allows officers to perform an investigatory stop based on a non-criminal traffic violation and that the tolerable duration of a traffic stop is to address the stop’s mission, which is to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop and attend to safety-related concerns. The court reasoned that. In Brown, the officer asking Brown to get out of his vehicle was within the stop’s mission, as an officer was addressing “safety-related concerns.
In a reluctant concurrence that concedes that precedent requires that the case be decided as it was, Judge Paul Reilly took issue with whether that precedent was good law. The concurrence pointed out that federal case law that “prohibits extending a traffic stop unless “during a valid traffic stop, the officer becomes aware of additional suspicious factors which are sufficient to give rise to an articulable suspicion that the person has committed.” In Judge Reilly’s view, however, the Wisconsin case law on which the majority relied allows officers simply to testify that they extended a stop for “safety” in order to avoid the limitations placed on traffic stops.
Judge Reilly’s concern is that by removing the reasonable suspicion requirement to extend traffic stops (which requires articulable facts), the law allows officers to use profiling to extend traffic stops when it’s based on a mere hunch – exactly what the 4th Amendment prohibits. Judge Reilly goes on to argue that “if we desire integrity in our judicial system, then we must also apply the rationale of Wright and Floyd [the Wisconsin case law on which the majority decision is based] neutrally to all persons regardless of race, gender, age, nationality, religious or political affiliation, what city their car hails from, how many air fresheners they have, whether their vehicle has tinted windows, or whether they happen to live in a high-crime area because they cannot afford to live elsewhere, etc.”
The Police Often Overstep their Authority During Traffic Stops
While this case illustrates the fact that current Wisconsin case law allows officers to extend traffic stops without having to find reasonable suspicion of a separate offense, there are certainly cases in which the police engage in unconstitutional searches and seizures during traffic stops. As a result, if you are facing criminal charges as a result of a search performed at a traffic stop, it’s highly advisable to have an experienced attorney review the facts of your case. There is a chance that judge may declare any evidence that the police gathered during your stop inadmissible, potentially resulting in the dismissal of your case.
If You Have Been Charged with a Crime after a Traffic Stop, Contact an Outagamie County Criminal Defense Attorney Today
At Hogan & Eickhoff, we understand how terrifying it can be to be facing criminal charges after a traffic stop or otherwise. We will thoroughly review the facts of your case at no cost to you and give you an honest appraisal of your legal options. We’re committed to protecting your rights and resolving your case as favorably as possible. To schedule your free case evaluation with a criminal defense lawyer in Appleton, call our office today at (920) 450-9800 or send us an email through our online contact form.