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Court of appeals sees no problem with initiation or duration of traffic stop

State v. John D. Arthur Griffin, 2015AP1271-CR, 3/3/16, District 4 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

The court of appeals finds that the police had reasonable suspicion to stop the car Griffin was driving and, even though that suspicion dissipated during the encounter, that the continued detention of Griffin was reasonable.

Shortly after hearing a police dispatch that shots had been fired at a tavern and that a silver Chevy Impala suspected of involvement had fled the scene, Officer Reed saw a silver Chevy Impala drive by. Reed followed the Impala. It stopped at a red light, and a passenger exited the driver’s side back door; when Reed got out and told the passenger to get back in the car the passenger did, but in the front passenger seat. When the Impala drove away, Reed returned to his car and activated his lights to stop it. (¶¶3-5).

Before approaching the stopped car Reed got an update from dispatch saying that the car being sought probably had Iowa plates; the Impala Reed stopped had Illinois plates. Reed got the ID of Griffen, the driver, asked why the passenger had gotten out at the stoplight (he said he was cramped in the back), and returned to his squad to run Griffin’s ID. Reed then confirmed with dispatch that they were looking for an Impala with Iowa registration, so Reed told Officer Sanders, who’d arrived as backup, that he was going to let Griffin go—but not before asking him if there were weapons in the car and if he would consent to a search of the car. Reed and Sanders then had Griffin to get out of the car to talk, and as they were walking past the car Sanders saw a gun through an open window. (¶¶6-8).

Griffin claim the police lacked reasonable suspicion for the initial stop because even before the stop Reed had heard they were looking for a car with Iowa, not Illinois, registration. The court of appeals disagrees:

¶16     …Griffin ignores the totality of the circumstances supporting Officer Reed’s reasonable suspicion that the vehicle driven by Griffin was the suspect vehicle from the nearby shooting. The circuit court properly considered the following facts in its totality of the circumstances analysis:

Officer Reed was given a dispatch that there was a … silver Chevy Impala that was possibly involved in the shooting. This car [Griffin’s] matched that vehicle very closely. It was two a.m. in the morning in an isolated area, which happened to have a stoplight. The officer, when he was waiting there and taking a look at them, observed that [a passenger] got out and ran around the car. That obviously drew his attention. The purpose of Terry and what Terry really says is you’ve got to take a view of the common sense reasonableness of what occurred one way or the other. And I think this officer under the facts and circumstances did what he should have done and what I would hope he would do as a police officer and stop the car and get some identification.

The fact that Officer Reed heard on the radio that the suspect registration may be different is one fact that should be considered, but it is not a dispositive fact that automatically renders the stop unreasonable. Rather, the totality of the facts and circumstances before Officer Reed at the moment of the investigatory stop, as found by the circuit court above, was sufficient to give rise to reasonable suspicion that this vehicle was the suspect vehicle from the shooting.

Sure, the Illinois registration isn’t dispositive, but it weighs against the marginal evidence here. Note in particular that beyond the stop happening in “an isolated area” the court cites no evidence about what direction the car fled from the scene, where the shooting happened compared to where Griffin’s car was seen, whether Griffin could have traversed that distance in the time between the shooting and being spotted, etc. Of course, this isn’t the first time the courts validate a stop based on scanty evidence, and it won’t be the last.

Griffin next argues that the duration of the stop was unreasonable because the purpose of the investigatory stop was completed once dispatch advised Officer Reed that Griffin’s vehicle was not involved in the shooting. The court of appeals doesn’t buy this argument, saying it “wrongly assumes that the information from dispatch … rendered the investigation complete” when in fact “it is apparent from the evidence that Officer Reed intended to briefly continue the detention to further investigate when he intended to ask Griffin to give voluntary consent to a search of the vehicle.” (¶17).

¶18     “[O]nce stopped, the driver may be asked questions reasonably related to the nature of the stop ….” State v. Betow, 226 Wis. 2d 90, 93, 593 N.W.2d 499 (Ct. App. 1999). “A seizure becomes unreasonable when the incremental liberty intrusion resulting from the investigation supersedes the public interest served by the investigation. In sum, an unconstitutional continuation of a once lawful seizure can occur when the extension of time for that needed to satisfy the original concern that caused the stop becomes unreasonable or when the means used to continue the seizure becomes unreasonable, both of which are evaluated under the totality of the circumstances presented.” State v. Arias, 2008 WI 84, ¶38, 311 Wis. 2d 358, 752 N.W.2d 748 (citation omitted).

¶19     Under the totality of the facts and circumstances here, neither the extension of time that Officer Reed took to satisfy his original concern that caused the stop, nor the means he used to continue his investigation, were unreasonable. The circuit court found that Officer Reed was still concerned after talking to dispatch, and that Officer Reed’s intent after speaking to dispatch was: “I’m just gonna go up and ask whether they’ll let me take a look in the car, because I’m not quite sure, I’m a little hesitant over these [tinted] windows and the activities that took place.” The record supports the circuit court’s finding that Officer Reed intended only to briefly continue the detention to further investigate his original concern, that the car was the suspect vehicle from the shooting, by asking whether he could search the vehicle before returning Griffin’s identification. Officer Reed testified that he thought that “there’s a lot going on in the parking lot of a bar especially after a shooting,” and that he “believed … the dispatcher had incorrect information” as to the vehicle registration. Officer Reed, therefore, told Officer Sanders that he “just wanted to go up and make sure there [were] no weapons in the car, and [that he] was going to ask the driver for consent to search the car.”

The court’s reliance on Arias is profoundly misplaced, for it fails to take account of Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 1609 (2015). As explained here, Rodriguez effectively abrogated Arias’s approach of balancing the “incremental” liberty intrusion against the public interest in investigation. Instead, Rodriguez demands courts ask one question: Is the stop prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete the mission of the initial stop? The answer to that question in this case is “yes.” Sure, Officer Reed was still “concerned” despite dispatch telling him he had the wrong car, but under the circumstances he had no more than hunch that there was “a lot more going on” and that the dispatcher had incorrect information. His “original concern” for the stop was resolved with the information they were seeking a car with Iowa, not Illinois, plates, so under Rodriguez his authority to detain Griffin was done and over, regardless of how brief (or de minimis) the continued detention might be.

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