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Why did the police pull me over?

Why did the cops pull you over?  A criminal defense attorney should always ask you this question at your initial consultation.  Whether you’re facing a drug case, a drunk driving case, or any other case that involves a traffic stop, the police need to satisfy constitutional requirements before stopping your vehicle.  If they fail to satisfy that requirement, evidence may be suppressed from use at trial.  If certain evidence is suppressed, your case gets dismissed.

What’s the requirement?

In an opinion published July 14, 2015 the Wisconsin Supreme Court clarified questions regarding the stop of a vehicle.  In State v. Richard E. Houghton, the Court concluded that “reasonable suspicion that a traffic law has been or is being violated is sufficient to justify all traffic stops.”

But Houghton makes things interesting.  In that case, Police Officer Jeff Price pulled Houghton over after observing the vehicle traveling on a highway without a front license plate, with an air freshener attached to his rear-view mirror, and a GPS unit on the front windshield.  Once Price approached the vehicle he detected the odor of marijuana, searched the vehicle, and found nearly 240 grams of marijuana.

Houghton’s attorney argued that probable cause was required to conduct the stop of Houghton’s vehicle.  He pointed out that Price lacked probable cause to stop the vehicle, making the subsequent search unlawful.  The State countered that reasonable suspicion was sufficient for police to initiate any type of traffic stop, and that Price had the requisite reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.  Specifically, the State cited Wis. Stat. sec. 346.88(3)(b), which deals with obstruction of the driver’s view.  They argued that Price relied on the fact that he believed the statute prohibited items from being attached to the windshield and hanging from the rear-view mirror.

Things got interesting because Wis. Stat. sec. 346.88(3)(b) doesn’t absolutely prohibit any object from being present in the front windshield of a vehicle.  Price believed that the statute created such a prohibition.  Price incorrectly understood the law and based his stop on that incorrect understanding.  Not all items attached to a windshield or hanging from a rear-view mirror block the driver’s view.  However, the Court went on to indicate that it believed Price’s mistake was “objectively reasonable” and therefore Price had reasonable suspicion to stop the vehicle.

I can be stopped based on a police officer’s incorrect understanding of the law?

As the law currently stands, yes.  Just last July the Wisconsin Supreme Court came to the opposite conclusion, advising that a stop based upon a police officer’s incorrect interpretation of the law violated the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  In State v. Antonio D. Brown the Court found that a police officer’s misunderstanding regarding a burnt-out tail-lamp bulb that led to a stop and eventual recovery of a firearm violated Brown’s 4th Amendment rights.  Three of the four bulbs in the tail-lamp were lit in Brown’s car.  Only one was out.  But the law didn’t require that all lights be lit, and so Brown’s stop was based on police misinterpretation of the law.

In Brown, a gun which was later recovered was suppressed from use at trial.

The Court in Houghton overruled Brown, holding that: (1) “pretextual stops … are not per se unreasonable under the 4th Amendment”; (2) probable cause is never required for a traffic stop”; (3) the officer here “misunderstood” multiple provisions of Ch. 346, but his mistakes were “objectively reasonable”; and (4) Article I §11 of Wisconsin’s Constitution extends no further than the 4th Amendment.

The Court went further and overruled State v. Longcore, 226 Wis. 2d 1, 594 N.W.2d 412 (Ct. App. 1999).  Longcore held that a traffic stop may not be predicated on an officer’s mistake of law.  “All Wisconsin cases holding otherwise are hereby overruled to the extend they conflict with this hold.”  ¶52.  The Court thus overruled Brown and reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision in Houghton.

Can police rely on any mistake?

No.  The court still evaluates whether the mistake was “objectively reasonable.”  Unfortunately they didn’t provide us any explanation for how to determine whether the mistake was objectively reasonable.

But the Supreme Court of the United States gave us a clue.  Houghton was published after Heien v. North Carolina, a SCOTUS case that held that a police officer’s reasonable mistake of law may give rise to the reasonable suspicion necessary to justify an investigatory seizure under the Fourth Amendment.  In her Heien concurrence, Justice Kagan suggested the test for what’s objectively reasonable should be whether a reasonable judge could agree with the officer’s interpretation of the statute.

The court’s decision in Houghton is concerning.  An officer may stop a vehicle for any reason, come up with a reasonable mistake of law, and say that he thought it was a traffic violation.  This is a developing area of law.  Soon hopefully we’re provided with a firm explanation for what “objectively reasonable” means.

Contact Meyer Van Severen, S.C. for criminal defense representation.  (414) 270-0202

Not all criminal defense attorneys stay up to date with the law.  Houghton affects drunk driving cases, drug cases, weapon cases, and any other case involving vehicle stops.  When facing charges such as these, it’s important that your attorney understand exactly what your constitutional protections are and how to defend you.  This post was written by criminal defense lawyer Matt Meyer on July 16, 2015.  Remember: the law is constantly evolving.