Tuesday, May 03, 2011

OWI Appeal - Wisconsin Says Misreading License Plates OK for Stop

In State of Wisconsin v. Reierson, Slip Copy, 2011 WL 1587124 (Wis.App.), the police officer ran the license plates of a vehicle it was following. The vehicle's registration came back as expired, and the officer activated his emergency lights and made a traffic stop, pulling his squad car up behind the parked vehicle.

The officer got out of his car to make contact with the driver. Approaching the parked vehicle, the officer discovered that he had misread the last numeral on the license plate. The officer testified a small screw or bolt going through the plate had obscured his view of the last numeral. Nonetheless, he officer continued toward to the vehicle to explain his reasons for making the stop. When the officer reached the driver's side window, a man later identified as Andrew Reierson opened his car door to communicate with the officer because his window was stuck. The officer detected the odor of intoxicants on Reierson's breath and noticed that his eyes were red. Reierson performed field sobriety tests at the officer's request, and submitted to a preliminary breath test, which showed Reierson had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .16. Reierson was subsequently charged with OWI, third offense.

The court stated as follows:

"[W]e conclude the (trial) court properly denied the motion to suppress because the traffic stop was the product of the officer's reasonable belief, which was based on a good-faith mistake of fact, that Reierson was operating a vehicle with an expired registration..."
"We have found no published Wisconsin case addressing the present situation, where the lawfulness of an investigatory traffic stop turns on an officer's good-faith mistake of fact. However, as a general rule, courts decline to apply the exclusionary rule where an officer makes a reasonable, good-faith factual mistake. See United States v. Cashman, 216 F.3d 582, 587 (7th Cir.2000) (where officer reasonably believed crack in windshield was long enough to violate statute, but it was not in fact, officer had probable cause to stop for traffic violation); see United States v. Miguel, 368 F.3d 1150, 1153–54 (9th Cir.2004) (citing United States v. King, 244 F.3d 736, 739 (9th Cir.2001) (“An officer's correct understanding of the law, together with a good-faith error regarding the facts, can establish reasonable suspicion.”)); see also John Kaplan, The Limits of the Exclusionary Rule, 26 Stan. L.Rev.. 1027, 1044 (1974); Wayne R. LaFave, The Fourth Amendment in an Imperfect World: On Drawing “Bright Lines” and “Good Faith,” 43 U. Pitt. L.Rev.. 307, 348 (1982).

"By contrast, “[s]tops premised on a mistake of law, even a reasonable, good-faith mistake, are generally held to be unconstitutional.” United States v. Coplin, 463 F.3d 96, 101 (1st Cir.2006) (surveying federal circuit decisions), cert. denied, 549 U.S. 1237 (2007); State v. Longcore, 226 Wis.2d 1, 8–9, 594 N.W.2d 412 (Ct.App.1999), aff'd by equally divided court, 2000 WI 23, 233 Wis.2d 278, 607 N.W.2d 620 (officer's erroneous application of law to the facts does not give probable cause for a traffic stop); United States v. McDonald, 453 F.3d 958, 961 (7th Cir.2006) (stop held to be invalid where officer mistakenly believed that Illinois statutes prohibited defendant's use of a turn signal while rounding a bend); but see United States v. Martin, 411 F.3d 998, 1001 (8th Cir.2005) (objectively reasonable mistakes of either fact or law can support probable cause).

The appellate court concluded that the stop of the defendant was lawful because the officer had probable cause to stop Reierson for operating with an expired registration, contrary to Wis. Stat. § 341.04(1), based on the officer's good-faith mistake of fact in misreading Reierson's license plate number.

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