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Detention four days after crime still lawful

Vergeront

The vehicle was sufficiently similar to that described by the complainant. The fact that the car was within a few blocks of the scene of the domestic abuse incident was an additional relevant factor: it was reasonable to infer that Phillips frequented the neighborhood where his girlfriend lived.

Judge Margaret J. Vergeront Wisconsin Court of Appeals

The stop of a motorist four days after a domestic violence incident was lawful, where the car and driver fit the description given, and the stop occurred a few blocks from the crime scene, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held on October 3.

The court further held that, when an officer lawfully stops and detains a driver as a crime suspect, the officer can properly ask for identification, even if she has already determined the driver is not the suspect.

Wrong Place and Time

On June 16, 2001, Beloit Police Officer Mary Garcia responded to a domestic abuse incident. The complainant told Garcia that her boyfriend, Demetrius Phillips, had a handgun and had been disorderly at the house. She described Phillips as a black male in his twenties, approximately five feet six inches, weighing 150 or 160 pounds, and stated that he was driving a dark blue Chevrolet Euro 90’s model with a red pinstripe and tinted windows.

Four days later, Garcia observed a young black male driving a four-door blue Chevrolet Euro with a red pinstripe, but no tinted windows, at an intersection a few blocks from the scene of the crime. The vehicle had only a temporary registration plate.

Garcia stopped the vehicle to see if the driver was Phillips. The driver identified himself as Vernell T. Williams and gave his date of birth, but did not have a driver’s license or any other identification to prove his identity.

Garcia called an Officer Henderson to ask if he would be able to identify Vernell Williams, and Henderson said yes. Officer Henderson arrived at the scene and confirmed that the person in the vehicle was Williams. Garcia then determined that Williams did not have a valid driver’s license, but did not issue a citation.

Instead, Garcia searched the vehicle, based on Officer John Fahrney telling her over the radio that she should attempt to obtain consent to do so. Garcia found cocaine in the trunk.

Williams was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to deliver, and moved to suppress the fruits of the search. Rock County Circuit Court Judge Michael J. Byron concluded that the stop was unlawful, and granted the motion.

Byron also stated that he “had some real concerns with the consent to search,” but did not make any specific findings on that issue, given the conclusion that the initial stop was unlawful.

The State appealed, and the court of appeals reversed and remanded, in a decision by Judge Margaret J. Vergeront.

What the court held

Case: State of Wisconsin v. Vernell T. Williams, No. 02-0384-CR.

Issue: Did officers have reasonable suspicion to stop a driver suspected of a domestic violence four days earlier? Can an officer ask a detained motorist for identification, even after determining that the driver is not the suspect for whom the officer is looking?

Holding: Yes. The vehicle matched the description of that owned by the suspect, the suspect and driver were both young, black, males, and the vehicle was only a few blocks from the scene of the crime. Yes. There is a legitimate public interest in officers’ documenting citizen contacts, and the intrusion on the driver is minimal.

Counsel: Scott H. Dirks, Janesville, Susan M. Crawford, Madison, for appellant; Michael A. Haakenson, Janesville, for respondent

Stop and Detention

The court held that Officer Garcia had sufficient facts to provide reasonable suspicion to stop Williams. The court reasoned, “The vehicle she stopped was sufficiently similar to that described by the complainant, and a young black male was driving the vehicle.

The fact that she saw the car within a few blocks of the scene of the domestic abuse incident was an additional relevant factor: it was reasonable to infer that Phillips frequented the neighborhood where his girlfriend lived. Finally, stopping the vehicle to determine if Phillips was the driver was a means to quickly find that out with minimal intrusion.”

Identification

Turning to whether the officers’ conduct subsequent to the initial stop was lawful, the court held that, even if Garcia realized that the driver was not the suspect Phillips, it was reasonable for her to ask for identification.

Citing State v. Ellenbecker, 159 Wis. 2d 91, 464 N.W.2d 427 (Ct. App.1990), the court held that the request for a driver’s license did not transform the lawful detention into an unlawful seizure.

The court in Ellenbecker, which involved an officer assisting a disabled motorist, noted several legitimate purposes for such a request: a report by the officer and identification of the motorist may be necessary: the officer may be required to record citizen contact; the information may be helpful to the officer in the event of later citizen complaints against the officer; and the information may aid in an investigation of a crime, such as theft of a car. For the same
reasons, the court concluded that it was proper to request Williams’ identification in this case.

The court also noted that sec. 343.18(1) gives law enforcement officers the authority to require a driver of a motor vehicle to display his or her license on demand.

Links

Wisconsin Court of Appeals

Related Article

Case Analysis

The court further concluded that it was reasonable for the officers to continue to detain Williams further, because the officers had reasonable ground to suspect that he was not authorized to drive, after he was unable to produce identification.

Remand

Nevertheless, the court remanded for factfinding on the officers’ conduct after that point, stating, “as the trial court pointed out, the sequence and timing of events from this point on is not clear from the testimony, and this hampers our analysis of the lawfulness of the stop after the point in time that Officer Garcia learned Williams did not have a valid driver’s license. Once Officer Garcia knew Williams did not have a valid driver’s license, she could at that point lawfully detain him further only for the purpose of giving him a citation for that violation, and, perhaps, for a violation of Wis. Stat. sec. 343.18(1), since the record discloses no basis for reasonably suspecting him of any other violation at that time.”

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David Ziemer can be reached by email.

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