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Traffic stop upheld

For decades, a frequently-arising question has gone without resolution: Can an officer stop a vehicle, because the owner of the vehicle does not have a valid driver’s license, even though the officer does not know whether the owner is the one driving the car?

If the only thing at stake is an operating after revocation/suspension conviction, there is little incentive to appeal (although it has been done). Even if the resulting charge is more serious, but still a misdemeanor — drunk driving, possession of marijuana — any appeal will be handled by a single judge, rather than a three-judge panel, and be ineligible for publication in the official reports, pursuant to Rules 752.31(2) and 809.23(3).

So, the issue has never been definitively resolved, until last week, when the court of appeals considered the issue in a three-judge case, and recommended its opinion for publication, holding that such a stop is legal.

Longstanding Question

The issue goes back at least to 1989, when an automobile was stopped by an officer, who knew that the driver’s license of the vehicle’s owner had been revoked recently. The circuit court judge granted the passenger’s motion to suppress.

However, the court of appeals reversed, holding, “the officer could reasonably conclude that a specific woman, who he believed to have had her license revoked, was driving her automobile without a license.” State v. Koehnke, 158 Wis.2d 732, 463 N.W.2d 882 (Table), 1990 WL 198165 (unpublished) (Wis.App., Oct. 31, 1990).

In 1994, the court of appeals addressed the issue again, in State v. Schaumberg, 188 Wis.2d 82, 524 N.W.2d 649 (Table), 1994 WL 479793 (unpublished)(Wis.App., Sept. 7, 1994). Both the circuit court and the court of appeals held the stop valid. The court wrote, “it was reasonable for [the officers] to reasonably suspect that Schaumberg’s vehicle was being driven by Schaumberg himself. That is certainly a valid inference that police officers may draw.”

The issue arose again in 2002, in State v. Groesbeck, 255 Wis.2d 835, 646 N.W.2d 856 (Table), 2002 WL 554529 (Wis.App., April 16, 2002). As in Koehnke, the circuit court granted the defendant’s motion to suppress.

However, as in Koehnke and Schaumberg, the court of appeals held that the stop was valid, concluding, “A reasonable officer could reasonably suspect that the registered owner of the car was the person driving it.”

In Groesbeck, however, there were other factors justifying the stop: previous erratic driving by the same vehicle; and frequent turns in an attempt to evade the squad car. The court relied on those factors, as well, rather than the bare fact of the owner’s revocation, in upholding the stop the vehicle.

However, none of these cases have been precedent these past 17 years, nor have prosecutors even been allowed to cite them, even though everyone in the courtroom may be aware of their existence. Instead, the issue has been treated as one of first impression in Wisconsin all these years.

Recommended for Publication

That will change, assuming the publication committee publishes last week’s opinion.

As in the other cases, an officer verified that a vehicle being operated in his jurisdiction was registered to a person whose license was revoked, and stopped the vehicle. The driver was in fact the owner, and he moved to suppress the evidence against him in his trial for felony drunk driving.

Walworth County Circuit Court Judge Michael S. Gibbs granted the motion, and the State appealed. The court of appeals certified the issue to the Supreme Court, but the court denied the certification.

The court of appeals then reversed, in a decision by Judge Richard S. Brown, relying on cases from other jurisdictions, particularly State v. Pike, 551 N.W.2d 919, 922 (Minn. 1996).

The court held, “an officer’s knowledge that a vehicle’s owner’s license is revoked will support reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop so long as the officer remains unaware of any facts that would suggest that the owner is not driving.”

The court adopted the reasoning of the court in Pike that, “When an officer observes a vehicle being driven, it is rational for him or her to infer that the owner of the vehicle is the current operator.” Pike, 551 N.W.2d at 922.

However, the court also adopted the same qualification as the Minnesota court — that the owner’s revocation does not render a stop of the driver automatically valid.

The court limited its holding, stating, “If an officer comes upon information suggesting that the assumption is not valid in a particular case, for example that the vehicle’s driver appears to be much older, much younger, or of a different gender than the vehicle’s registered owner, reasonable suspicion would, of course, dissipate. There would simply be no reason to think that the nonowner driver had a revoked license.”

Because the officer did not observe the driver of the car before stopping it, the court held the stop of Newer valid, and reversed.

One comment

  1. Testing again.

    Also – why no links to the cases?

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