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Officer had probable cause to stop vehicle for tailgating

State v. Arik James Ulwelling, 2014AP814-CR, District 3, 11/4/14 (1-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity

Police had probable cause to stop Ulwelling for violating § 346.14(1), which prohibits motor vehicle operators from following another vehicle “more closely than is reasonable and prudent”—i.e., tailgating.

What constitutes a reasonable and prudent distance depends on the fact finder’s evaluation of “a great many considerations, including speed, amount of traffic, road conditions and opportunities for clear vision.” Hibner v. Lindauer, 18 Wis. 2d 451, 456, 118 N.W.2d 873 (1963). Rejecting Ulwelling’s argument that the only relevant testimony at the suppression hearing was the officer’s statement that Ulwelling was one to one-and-one-half car lengths behind another vehicle, the court of appeals finds the officer cited sufficient facts to support probable cause:

¶15      First, [Officer] Lindeman’s testimony regarding the distance between the two vehicles was not the “only relevant testimony” supporting probable cause. Lindeman also testified as to the speed of the vehicles, the time of day, the conditions of the road and the absence of other vehicles on the roadway. These additional, undisputed facts—especially those regarding speed and time of day—give important context to Lindeman’s perceived distance between the vehicles and the resultant reasonableness and prudence of Ulwelling’s distance behind the other vehicle.

¶16      Second, Ulwelling fails to explain why Lindeman’s real-time observations regarding the distance between the two vehicles and his conclusions—based on his training and experience—regarding the safety of such a distance under the circumstances could not lead a reasonable police officer to believe that Ulwelling violated Wis. Stat. § 346.14. …. Lindeman’s observations, which the circuit court found credible, are a sufficient factual basis from which a court can determine the constitutional reasonableness of his stop of Ulwelling.

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