The Wisconsin State Supreme Court recently issued a major decision affecting the rights of defendants in criminal cases in the state. In a 4-1 decision, the Supreme Court held that it was legal for the police officers to ask a motorist to exit the car and subject him to a search when the officer already had a citation in hand to issue for not wearing a seatbelt. If something similar to this happens to you, make sure to contact your criminal defense attorney right away.

State v. Brown Involved Allegations of an Illegal Search

In this particular case, State v Brown, a Fond du Lac police officer pulled a motorist over for rolling through a stop sign and discovered that he was not wearing a seatbelt. Here are some facts about the arrest.

  • The police officer learned that the driver was from Milwaukee.
  • He grew suspicious when the motorist said that he was in town to visit a friend but was unable to name the friend or give their address.
  • The officer learned that the driver had a criminal record that included previous arrests for armed robbery and illegal narcotics.
  • The police officer requested a canine unit to the scene, but there was not one available.
  • The officer returned with a citation for failure to wear a seatbelt but asked the motorist to exit the vehicle beforehand and asked further questions about whether the driver had weapons or drugs.

The Defendant Was Not Free to Go

The driver was arrested after the officer searched him and found four grams of crack-cocaine. When the case went to trial, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence of the drugs, claiming that the police officer violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The defendant’s specific claim was that by unreasonably prolonging the traffic stop, the officer made an illegal seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Here, the illegal seizure would have been of the defendant himself, who was not free to go, even after the officer returned with his ticket for not wearing a seatbelt.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of the police. The justices looked at the facts of the situation and held that the police officer had a valid safety concern based on the alleged inconsistencies in the driver’s story and his prior criminal record. Even though the officer had already written out a ticket that he was bringing back to the driver’s car, the Supreme Court said that the officer did not extend the traffic stop.

Police Cannot Measurably Extend a Traffic Stop

The Supreme Court said that officers can execute a search that is not related to the purpose of their stop as long as they do not measurably extend the time of the traffic stop. Here, even though the defendant would have been free to go the second the officer handed him the citation after he had already run the criminal history check, the Supreme Court found that this did not measurably extend the traffic stop. Of course, the defendant’s criminal history played a role in the decision.

Nonetheless, this decision makes it easier for Wisconsin Police officers to search defendants and their vehicles on any routine traffic stop. Police officers seemingly have few limits on the unrelated searches they can execute so long as they have a valid fear for their own safety. It is easy in retrospect for any officer to argue that they had a reasonable fear for their well-being to justify their search.

Police May Be Able to Search More

You can see how this decision could have a significant impact on criminal law in Wisconsin in the future. Even though the Supreme Court ruled for the police, there are circumstances in which police can cross the line during a routine traffic stop that could result in a court throwing out seized evidence.

The Wisconsin State Patrol advises people to remain calm when they have been pulled over and comply with all the officer’s instructions. However, it is possible for the police officer to violate your rights during a traffic stop. Here, the Wisconsin Supreme Court found that the officers acted legally. However, one could easily envision situations where law enforcement acts illegally during a routine traffic stop. This could have an impact on your constitutional rights and your freedom.

Evidence Issues Are Important in a Criminal Case

This particular Supreme Court decision underscores the fact that many cases in the criminal justice system have serious evidentiary issues that could determine the ultimate outcome of a case. Many criminal trials hinge on one key piece of evidence. If the defendant is able to persuade the court to exclude, it can make the difference between a conviction and an acquittal.

While we could not say that any one amendment of the Bill of Rights is more important than another, we can say that Fourth Amendment issues are extremely critical to any criminal case. All criminal justice cases begin with either a search warrant or an arrest. Both of these are subject to the Fourth Amendment. If the police did not follow the law themselves, their case could effectively go away.

You Need an Attorney to Challenge Evidence

Oftentimes, a trial is effectively decided in the early stages when each side makes its own motions about which evidence to admit or exclude from the case. The stakes are very high in these early hearings. A criminal defense lawyer could make a difference by spotting issues with the evidence that involve a violation of their client’s rights and then successfully persuading the judge to exclude the evidence.

This is why it is vital to work with a criminal defense attorney from the early stages of your case. Oftentimes, violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights start early in the case and compound themselves all the way through trial. A criminal defense lawyer could act to bring these to a court’s attention to help protect their client.

Call Us Today to Speak with an Appleton Criminal Defense Lawyer

If you have been arrested, an Appleton criminal defense attorney could take action to protect your constitutional rights. Call an attorney at Hogan Eickhoff for a free consultation at (920) 450-9800 or contact us online.