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Defense win: possible driver lacking Wisconsin license not reasonable suspicion

State v. Brittanie Jo Palaia, 2016AP467-CR, 12/30/17, District 3 (1-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case history (including briefs)

Here we have the latest twist on State v. Newer, 2007 WI App 236, 306 Wis. 2d 193, 742 N.W.2d 923, which held that an officer who knows only that a moving vehicle is registered to a person with a revoked license has reasonable suspicion for a stop.

Just within the past year or so we’ve had State v. Heinrich (post) (reasonable suspicion where one of two registered owners had occupational license and vehicle being operated outside licensed hours), and State v. Vitek (post) (no reasonable suspicion where one of unknown number of multiple registered owners has suspended license).

The facts here are a little more complicated: the officer stopped the vehicle because a license plate check revealed that one of the two registered owners had not been issued a Wisconsin license. (¶2). This is an important distinction: while it’s always illegal for a person whose license has been revoked or suspended to drive, plenty of people who have never gotten a Wisconsin license lawfully drive our state’s roads every day: residents of other states who are licensed where they live. (As it turned out, Palaia was apparently one of these people, being the spouse of an active duty Marine serving in Wisconsin. (¶4).) So, while the Heinrich court, in a two-registrant situation, thought it reasonable to infer that the restricted driver was the one driving, here we have two potential drivers, neither of whom is known to be forbidden to drive:

Prior to stopping the vehicle, it is undisputed Knepfel observed only two things when he ran the record check: there were two registered owners, and one of those owners, Anthony, had not been issued a Wisconsin driver’s license. Knepfel had no knowledge of whether either owner was a Wisconsin resident and, if so, when they established that residency, or were otherwise excepted from the Wisconsin license requirement. The circuit court concluded that Knepfel had reasonable suspicion to stop the Palaia vehicle because Knepfel believed the vehicle was being driven by a person without a valid Wisconsin license. However, under the statutory scheme above, driving a Wisconsin registered vehicle without a Wisconsin-issued driver’s license is not a criminal or traffic offense. Therefore, we agree with Brittanie that based upon the limited facts known to the officer at the time, there was no reasonable basis for an officer to suspect the person operating the Palaia vehicle was doing so illegally.

(¶9).

The state makes the usual argument that an officer need not rule out innocent explanations before conducting a stop, but in the court’s eyes, the initial grounds for suspicion here are just too weak:

The State argues that a violation of WIS. ADMIN. CODE § TRANS 102.14(4)(b) could reasonably have been inferred in this case. It claims an officer could reasonably believe the Palaias were more likely than not residing in Wisconsin because their vehicle was registered in Wisconsin, possessed Wisconsin-issued license plates, and was observed driving in Allouez, far from a Wisconsin border. Under these facts, the State claims Knepfel could dismiss the possibility that a driver would register a vehicle in Wisconsin without living in this state and properly assume Anthony had failed to apply for a Wisconsin license.

This assumption is tenuous. The fact that Knepfel observed a Wisconsin license plate may give rise to an inference the vehicle is or was from Wisconsin at some point. But given the mobility of modern society, the jurisdiction of a vehicle’s registry or where that vehicle is observed on the road does not necessarily provide information as to where a vehicle’s owner resides, let alone that the vehicle’s owner has resided in this state for over sixty days or that the owner did not meet other licensing exceptions. Knepfel’s limited check of the vehicle and the resulting readout on Anthony provided no specific facts that would permit Knepfel to conclude that Anthony was a Wisconsin resident. And, as the State concedes by way of the Motorists’ Handbook, certain categories of residents and non-residents do not need to apply for a Wisconsin driver’s license. On these facts, at the time of the stop, Knepfel had nothing more than an “inchoate and unparticularized suspicion, or ‘hunch’” that the vehicle operator was committing a traffic violation. See Terry, 392 U.S. at 27.

(¶¶11-12 (citations omitted)).

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