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Officer’s mistake of fact about car’s make and model didn’t invalidate stop

State v. Nathan Lewis Teasdale, 2015AP338-CR, District 4, 6/25/15 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

An officer reasonably suspected that Teasdale was violating § 341.61(2), which prohibits displaying on a registration plates that are not issued for that vehicle, even though the officer was mistaken in believing that the make and model of the car was different from the make and model of the car for which the plates were issued.

¶12     …[T]he deputy testified that he made the traffic stop because the license plate on Teasdale’s vehicle was registered to a red Chevrolet Cavalier and that, based upon his observation from a distance of three car lengths away at approximately 7:15 at night, he believed the vehicle was a teal Pontiac Sunfire. The deputy testified that his focus, after checking the license plate registration, was on the three occupants in the vehicle, and that he did not know that the vehicle was actually a Chevrolet Cavalier, rather than a Pontiac Sunfire, until he later returned to his squad car. The deputy confirmed that he believed the Chevrolet Cavalier and the Pontiac Sunfire look similar.

¶13     Teasdale does not present any evidence discrediting the deputy’s reasonable belief that the car he observed was not the same car to which the registration plates were issued. As Teasdale’s counsel pointed out during cross examination, the Chevrolet emblem typically on the trunk of the vehicle was actually missing, and there was only a “glue imprint … where an emblem had been.” Teasdale’s counsel recognized that “you can’t see it clearly,” but nevertheless asked the deputy whether the imprint looked “like a Chevy bowtie … where that emblem would have been attached.” The deputy responded, “It is possible, I can’t tell.”

Though no published Wisconsin opinion has explicitly recognized that a seizure based on a mistake of fact can be reasonable, other courts have, most recently and significantly Heien v. North Carolina, ___ U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 530, 536 (2014) (which is cited by the court here (¶10)). Teasdale argued (brief at 8) that the deputy provided no specific facts that would show it was reasonable for him to mistake a Pontiac Sunbird for a Chevy Cavalier, though the state (brief at 6) suggests the officer may have provided the scintilla of information necessary to satisfy a judge. But the court of appeals provides no analysis of this question, and then wrongly suggests Teasdale had to present evidence discrediting the deputy’s reasonable belief. (¶13). It is the State’s burden to elicit sufficient evidence to show the officer’s mistake was reasonable, State v. Taylor, 60 Wis. 2d 506, 519, 210 N.W.2d 873 (1973) (“[w]here a violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizures is asserted, the burden of proof upon the motion to suppress is upon the state”), and Teasdale’s whole point is that the little the officer said wasn’t sufficient to make that showing.

Note that it was critical to the legitimacy of the stop that the deputy’s mistake about the make and model was reasonable because, as Teasdale points out, under § 349.02(2)(c) “a law enforcement officer may not stop a vehicle solely because the vehicle’s color differs from the color stated in the application for registration of that vehicle.” (Emphasis added.) Absent a reasonable mistaken belief as to the make and model, the color discrepancy alone wouldn’t have been enough to justify the stop.

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