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SCOW: Police asking driver about weapons is part of any traffic stop’s “mission”

State v. John Patrick Wright, 2019 WI 45, reversing an unpublished court of appeals decision; case activity (including briefs)

The supreme court holds (again) that, as part of any routine traffic stop, police may ask a driver whether he or she is carrying a weapon.

Wright was stopped for a defective headlight. After telling Wright the reason for the stop and asking for identification, the officer asked Wright if he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon and whether there were weapons in the car. Wright said he’d just taken the CCW permitting class and that he had a gun in the car; at the officer’s request Wright agreed to have the gun removed while the stop was ongoing. The officer then checked the status of Wright’s permit and learned it wasn’t yet valid, so Wright was charged with CCW. (¶¶15-18).

The court of appeals held that the officer’s questions about weapons and a concealed carry permit unlawfully extended the traffic stop under Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), which held a police stop cannot exceed the time needed to handle the matter for which the stop was made. “A seizure justified only by a police-observed traffic violation … ‘become[s] unlawful if it is prolonged beyond the time reasonably required to complete th[e] mission’ of issuing a ticket for the violation.” Id. at 1612 (citation omitted). “Authority for the seizure thus ends when tasks tied to the traffic infraction are—or reasonably should have been—completed.” Id. at 1615.

A unanimous supreme court reverses:

¶24     The “mission” of a traffic stop includes: (1) addressing the traffic violation that warranted the stop; (2) conducting ordinary inquiries incident to the stop; and (3) taking negligibly burdensome precautions to ensure officer safety. Authority for the seizure ends when these tasks are, or reasonably should have been, completed.

¶25     Because traffic stops are “especially fraught with danger to police officers,” the Supreme Court has explained that “an officer may need to take certain negligibly burdensome precautions in order to complete his mission safely.” [Rodriquez, 135 S. Ct. at 1616.] Indeed, the Supreme Court has stated that the Fourth Amendment categorically authorizes the police to order the driver  [Pennsylvania v. Mimms, 434 U.S. 106, 111 (1977)] and all passengers [Maryland v. Wilson, 519 U.S. 408, 411 (1997)] out of the vehicle for the duration of the traffic stop in order to ensure the safety of the officer.

¶26     The police may take these precautions because “the government’s officer safety interest stems from the mission of the stop itself.” As this court has explained, questions related to officer safety are part of the traffic stop’s mission, and therefore, those questions do not cause an extension of the stop. [State v. Floyd, 2017 WI 78, ¶28, 377 Wis. 2d 394, 898 N.W.2d 560.]

****

¶31     Asking a lawfully stopped motorist about the presence of weapons is significantly less burdensome than ordering all occupants out of the vehicle for the duration of the stop. If a police officer may, in the interest of officer safety, order all occupants out of the vehicle for the duration of the stop without violating the Fourth Amendment, the officer may take a less burdensome precaution to ensure officer safety.

¶32     … Floyd … supports the conclusion that a police officer may ask about the presence of weapons during a traffic stop without violating the Fourth Amendment.

¶33     In Floyd, “[the officer] asked Mr. Floyd if he had any weapons or anything that could harm him. When Mr. Floyd said he didn’t, [the officer] asked if he could perform a search for his safety.” The Floyd court explained that “[b]oth questions specifically related to the officer’s safety.” The Floyd court concluded that “because the questions related to officer safety and were negligibly burdensome, they were part of the traffic stop’s mission, and so did not cause an extension” of the stop.

(Footnotes omitted; bracketed citations inserted.) As in Floyd, the officer’s question to Wright about whether he was carrying any weapons directly related to officer safety and was negligibly burdensome, so it was part of the traffic stop’s “mission” and didn’t cause an extension of the stop.

The officer’s additional questions to Wright about a CCW permit and his check on the status of Wright’s permit are another matter, however, because they aren’t related to officer safety and therefore aren’t part of the stop’s “mission.” (¶37). But the Fourth Amendment “tolerate[s] certain unrelated investigations” so long as the inquiries do not measurably extend or lengthen the duration of the stop. (¶¶27, 38).  Neither the question about the permit or the permit check extended the stop in this case because they occurred “concurrently with mission-related activities”—namely, asking about weapons during the officer’s initial contact with Wright and then checking Wright’s driver license information. (¶¶44-48).

The upshot being that asking a driver about a CCW permit or doing a permit check might unlawfully extend the stop if that action comes after the mission of the stop is completed. So no doubt officers will now be trained (if they haven’t been already, as the officer in this case was) to ask for weapons and CCW permits right away, and to check the permit along with driver’s license, to avoid a claim under Rodriguez.

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Andrew M Morgan May 1, 2019, 10:50 pm

    From these rulings, it must follow that however the occupant responds, yes or no or otherwise, the officer then may, in the interest of his or her safety, and without any particularized reasonable suspicion that his or her safety may be at risk, order the occupant out of the car, handcuff the occupant, detain the occupant in the squad car, and search the subject car so that the occupant can’t grab the imagined weapon when the officer ultimately departs the scene. And from this it follows that the public at large, in this new dawn of CCW mania, may be accosted the same way at will by law enforcement officers, who may imagine a threat to their safety at any time while “performing their mission,” i.e. doing their job.

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