The Wisconsin Supreme Court continues to make life harder for criminal defendants throughout the state, broadening law enforcement’s power through its recent rulings. In one case, the Supreme Court has practically criminalized being in a “high-crime area,” allowing officers practically unlimited ability to view any ordinary behavior in these areas as a pretext to search possible suspects. With rulings like these, defendants need attorneys more than ever to help them fight illegal searches and seizures.
The facts in this case could read like any other evening for an average defendant who was sitting in his car. The defendant was in West Allis, which is a residential neighborhood. The area was being watched by an officer in an unmarked car. A woman went out from the house to the defendant’s car briefly. According to the police, this was a woman who was a known drug user.
Being in an Area With Drug Trafficking Made the Defendant a Suspect
When the defendant drove off, the officer followed him. Three blocks later, the officer made a traffic stop and found a loaded firearm in the defendant’s car. He was charged with a weapons offense. At trial, the defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the weapon because he argued that he was the victim of an illegal search because the officer did not have probable cause to search his car.
Under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, suspects have the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures unless there is a warrant that is based on probable cause. There is an exception for “exigent circumstances,” when police would not have the time to go to court to get a search warrant without evidence being lost. This stop must be based on probable cause based on what the officer saw and their experience.
Probable cause is always an issue in cases like these. Police will always argue after the fact that they saw something that would have given them a reasonable suspicion that a crime was occurring, freeing them from the obligation to go and get a search warrant. Working in the police’s favor is that probable cause is always a flexible standard that depends on the facts of the situation.
The difference in this case was where the defendant was found. It was established through internal police communications that he was in a part of Milwaukee that had a reputation for drug trafficking. Based on the officer’s experience and knowledge, he argued that he had reason to believe that a known drug user going out to a car in a high-crime area was enough to be probable cause, even though the driver of the car did nothing himself.
The Officer Was Permitted to Make a Terry Stop to Investigate
Working in the state’s favor was the fact that the Supreme Court considered this to be a “Terry stop” instead of a full search. A Terry stop is a more limited type of stop that allows officers to briefly stop and detain someone when they have a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is a lower standard than probable cause, and it allows officers to make more stops.
The Supreme Court reviewed the facts as the officer knew them at the time of the stop and found that he was right to have reasonable suspicion. The combination of all the facts, including the fact that the defendant was meeting with a known drug user in a brief meeting in an area with high drug trafficking, was enough to allow the officer to make a Terry stop. The Court insisted on looking at all the factors together, as opposed to looking at them in isolation from each other. However, there are some facts that were unmistakable:
- The officer could not see into the suspect’s car.
- The officer could not see what the suspect was doing.
- The officer did not see any physical contact or exchange between the suspect and the person who was the “known drug user.”
Being in Certain Areas Will Allow Police to Stop You If They Suspect Crime
The fear is that this decision will unfairly make people who are in residential areas with a police reputation for drug trafficking targets for more police stops, which is exactly what the dissenting judges honed in on. They argued that officers could now stop people for a more generalized hunch instead of having a particular suspicion about the person that they are stopping. As the dissent notes, large numbers of law-abiding citizens in a residential neighborhood would fall under the suspicion of the police simply for going about their daily business. In a way, this Supreme Court decision is a step in the direction of criminalizing being poor.
In the future, an officer could take generic facts and spin them into a story that allows them to briefly stop and interrogate a suspect. Police will be able to use more generic suspicions to stop people, which is not a problem that people in less crime-ridden neighborhoods will have.
More so than ever, you need a drug offense attorney if you have been stopped by police and arrested. There may be a way to challenge the police stop as an illegal search and seizure if the facts do not support the officer’s decision to stop you in the first place. Any evidence that they seize may be thrown out if it was taken as the result of the illegal search and would not have been otherwise found. First, an attorney needs to review your case to see if there are any grounds to fight the arrest in court.
Appleton Criminal Defense Attorneys Helping Clients
If you are facing charges, the criminal defense attorneys at Hogan Eickhoff are experienced counselors with a track record of fighting hard for our clients. Call us today at (920) 450-9800 or contact us online to schedule your free initial consultation. Without an attorney, your legal rights are at risk.