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Seizure of Person: Some Restraint Necessary; Reasonable Suspicion: Stop of Car: No Front Plate – “Frisk” of Car

State v. Leneral Louis Williams, 2010 WI App 39; for Williams: Richard L. Zaffiro; Resp Br.; Reply Br.

Seizure – Some Restraint Necessary

¶16      The Fourth Amendment is not implicated until there has been a seizure. The Court in Terry described a seizure as “whenever a police officer accosts an individual and restrains his [or her] freedom to walk away.” Id., 392 U.S. at 16. Not every encounter with a law enforcement officer is a seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 552 (1980); see also State v. Williams, 2002 WI 94, ¶4, 255 Wis. 2d 1, 646 N.W.2d 834 (“‘[A] person has been ‘seized’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment only if, in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.’” (citation omitted)).

¶17      Here, Williams seems to argue that the police performed an improper Terry stop on Williams’s van. We disagree. The undisputed facts are that the officers did not stop Williams’s van. It was already stopped and sitting at the corner on a public street. After driving past the van once and coming back around to it after a short patrol of the area, the police observed it was still there. They saw that it had no front license plate. It was then that the police decided to approach the van driver. They turned their spotlight on the van and approached it on each side.

Court doesn’t reach question of whether putting spotlight on van amounted to ¶18. Compare, State v. Charles E. Young, 2006 WI 98 (apparent dicta: though “close question,” in that “(w)hen a marked squad car pulls up behind a car, activates emergency flashers, and points a spotlight at the car, it certainly presents indicia of police authority,” ¶65, court is “reluctant to conclude that the positioning of the officer’s car, together with the lighting he employed, necessarily involved such a show of authority,” ¶69; nonetheless, court “not required to make that determination in this case,”id). Also: People v. Garry, Cal App No. A114235, 11/13/07 (use of spotlight, together with officer “briskly” walking toward person and “pointedly” asking about parole status amounted to detention).

Reasonable Suspicion, Stop of Car, No Front Plate
A missing front plate justifies stopping the car, because it represents “a violation of WIS. STAT. §§ 341.12(1) and 341.15(1),” ¶18.

The court relies on State v. Griffin, 183Wis. 2d 327, 329, 331-33, 515 N.W.2d 535 (Ct. App. 1994), which it describes as “holding that a dealer-printed ‘license applied for’ placard in the back window of a vehicle provided ‘reasonable suspicion’ that the vehicle’s operator was violating § 341.15),” id. This description of Griffin is possibly outmoded, in light of, State v. Raymond Lord, Jr., 2006 WI 122, ¶7 (rejecting idea that police may “stop any vehicle to verify the registration solely because the vehicle is displaying temporary license plates as set forth in the statutes”). Lord, to be sure, doesn’t discuss let alone limit Griffin, but the two holdings aren’t compatible, at least at the level of generality utilized by the court of appeals here. Of course, that a missing plate does violate the traffic code is something else; it’s just that reliance on Griffin isn’t really necessary.

Reasonable Suspicion, “Frisk” of Car
Police had reasonable suspicion to conduct a protective search of the passenger compartment, Michigan v. Long, 463 U.S. 1032 (1983), based on “a clear view of Williams hiding a large, dark object under the center console,” along with the fact that it was getting dark and the fact that they were in a known high-drug-trafficking area”:

¶20      Officer Monteilh testified that he approached the van on the passenger’s side while Officer Kaltenbrun approached the driver’s side. From the passenger side of the van, Officer Monteilh was five feet from the van driver, Williams, and had a clear view of Williams hiding a large, dark object under the center console. He described the object as one that Williams could grasp by placing his fingers around it. He saw Williams lift up the center console (which is normally attached to the floor), place the object underneath it and replace the console. He then observed Williams’s hand come up empty. Based on those observations, the fact that it was getting dark and the fact that they were in a known high-drug-trafficking area, Officer Monteilh believed that the object Williams placed under the console was a gun. Accordingly, he immediately walked around to the driver’s side of the van to tell Officer Kaltenbrun that he suspected there was a gun under the console and to ask Officer Kaltenbrun to direct Williams to step out of the van.

Remarkably thin analysis. The police weren’t investigating a crime; they had no particular reason to think Williams was armed other than the bare fact he placed something in the console while he happened to be parked in a purportedly high-crime area. True, it is enough to reasonably think the person armed and dangerous, that is, even absent belief a crime is being or has been committed, see Arizona v. Johnson, USSC No. 07-1122, 1/26/09. But the court utterly fails to explain the reasonableness of the belief Williams was armed and dangerous. Perhaps it is a truism to the court that an object in a “high-crime” area likely is a weapon.

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