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Reasonable Suspicion – Stop – Basis: Matching Description of Automobile Under Investigation for Earlier Crime

State v. Vernell T. Williams, 2002 WI App 306
For Williams: Michael A. Haakenson

Issue: Whether reasonable suspicion supported the stop of defendant’s car four days after a reported domestic abuse incident, because the car generally matched the description of the suspect’s car.

Holding:

¶14. We conclude that Officer Garcia did have knowledge of facts sufficient to provide a reasonable suspicion that the driver of the vehicle had been involved in the domestic abuse incident. The vehicle she stopped was sufficiently similar to that described by the complainant, and a young black male was driving the vehicle. The fact that she saw the car within a few blocks of the scene of the domestic abuse incident was an additional relevant factor: it was reasonable to infer that Phillips frequented the neighborhood where his girlfriend lived. Finally, stopping the vehicle to determine if Phillips was the driver was a means to quickly find that out with minimal intrusion.

¶15. Williams contends that his car did not completely match the description of the suspect’s vehicle because his car had four doors, not two, and did not have tinted windows, and therefore Officer Garcia should have known immediately it was not Phillips’s car. Officer Garcia did testify Williams’s car had four doors, but her answer to whether she recalled the complainant telling her Phillips’s car had two doors was “offhand no.” Her testimony therefore does not establish that the complainant told her Phillips’s car had two doors. As for the discrepancy over the windows, Officer Garcia could reasonably have concluded that the complainant witness may have made a mistake on this detail, given the match of the model and detail of the red pinstripe.

¶16. Williams also argues that Officer Garcia could see only that a young black male drove the car and that was insufficient to reasonably believe the driver matched the description of Phillips. However, what Officer Garcia observed of the driver, though very general, was consistent with the description of Phillips and that, together with the similarity of the car to the description of Phillips’s car and the proximity to the scene of the domestic abuse, made it reasonable for Officer Garcia to stop the car to see if Phillips was the driver.

The court casually lists the various factors articulated by State v. Guzy, 139 Wis. 2d 663, 677, 407 N.W.2d 548 (1987), but discards most as irrelevant to this case, ¶17 n. 2. The only factors involved here are particularity of description and place of stop. As to the first, the car did match up in terms of make and model, but this is still pretty generic. Though not stressed by the court, what may have tipped the balance is that both described and stopped cars had a red pinstripe – arguably a distinctive enough characteristic to take the car out of the category of generic-description. As to the second factor, the court emphasizes the proximity to the reported crime, as overcoming the passage of time. ¶¶16-17.

For a variant — reasonable suspicion to stop car but not driver for involvement in armed robbery, see U.S. v. Marken, 6th Cir No. 04-6053, 6/14/05 (“We are therefore faced with a novel question: whether the police are permitted to make Terry stops to investigate completed crimes when the police have reasonable suspicion to believe only that the stop will produce evidence of a crime, and do not have reasonable suspicion to believe that the person so stopped has committed a crime. We conclude that they are.”).

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