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Traffic Stop – Probable Cause – Good-Faith Mistake of Fact

State v. Andrew R. Reierson, 2010AP596-CR, District 4, 4/28/11

court of appeals decision (1-judge, not for publication); for Reierson: John Smerlinski; case activity

The officer’s erroneous reading of Reierson’s license plate, causing the officer to wrongly believe that his registration had expired, nonetheless supported stop of the car under the good-faith rule.

¶11      We conclude the circuit court properly denied the motion to suppress because the officer had probable cause to stop Reierson for operating with an expired registration, contrary to Wis. Stat. § 341.04(1), based on the officer’s reasonable, good-faith mistake of fact in misreading Reierson’s license plate number.  The officer testified he misread the last numeral on the plate (mistaking an “8” for a “6”) because the numeral was obscured by a small screw or bolt going through the plate.  Regardless whether the number was actually obscured—the court made no explicit finding in this regard[3]—the court did explicitly find the officer’s misreading of the plate was made in good faith.  Thus, at the time of the stop, the officer had a reasonable, if mistaken, belief that Reierson was operating a vehicle with an expired registration, contrary to Wis. Stat. § 341.04 (1).  Because the stop was predicated on the officer’s reasonable, good-faith mistake of fact, we conclude the motion to suppress evidence was properly denied.[4] Accordingly, we affirm the order denying the motion to suppress and the judgment of conviction.

The court carefully contrasts mistakes of fact such as this one (“as a general rule, courts decline to apply the exclusionary rule where an officer makes a reasonable, good-faith factual mistake,” ¶9) with those of law (which, even if reasonable and in good faith, “are generally held to be unconstitutional,” ¶10, quoting United States v. Coplin, 463 F.3d 96, 101 (1st Cir. 2006).) As the court further notes, there is no binding Wisconsin authority on the question of good-faith mistakes of fact, ¶8 – the issue is surely recurrent, so it will have to be litigated in a precedential setting sooner or later. (Prior On Point discussion, here.)

As to what the officer was allowed to do once he realized the mistake, the court rejects the idea that he should have “simply driven off without making contact with Reierson to explain to him the reason for the stop,” footnote 4. There’s certainly support for that view, e.g., U.S. v. Edgerton, 438 F.3d 1043 (10th Cir 2006) (“”[o]nce [the trooper] was able to read the Colorado tag and deem it unremarkable, any suspicion that defendant had violated [the Kansas statute relating to the display of license plates] dissipated … [and] [the trooper], as a matter of courtesy, should have explained to Defendant the reason for the initial stop and then allowed her to continue on her way without requiring her to produce her license and registration.”); and State v. Johnny Diaz, 850 So. 2d 435 (Fl. 2003) (“Having verified the total validity of Mr. Diaz’s temporary tag, the sheriff’s deputy could lawfully make personal contact with Mr. Diaz only to explain to him the reason for the initial stop.”) In this instance, the officer immediately smelled alcohol which coupled with other factors, supported OWI detention, footnote 4, consistent with this principle. But this is a limit on, not expansion of, authority; the larger point thus relates to termination of authority to continue the detention once its cause dissipates. See, e.g., United States v. McSwain, 29 F.3d 558 (10th Cir. 1994) (“Trooper Avery stopped Mr. McSwain for the sole purpose of ensuring the validity of the vehicle’s temporary registration sticker. Once Trooper Avery approached the vehicle on foot and observed that the temporary sticker was valid and had not expired, the purpose of the stop was satisfied. Trooper Avery’s further detention of the vehicle to question Mr. McSwain about his vehicle and travel itinerary and to request his license and registration exceeded the scope of the stop’s underlying justification.”)).

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