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Totality of circumstances justified investigative detention

State v. Sara Ann Ponfil, 2016AP2059-CR, 5/31/17, District 3 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

A police officer discovered cocaine after he detained Ponfil, who, as the officer approached, got out of one of two vehicles parked next to each other outside a bar. The court of appeals concludes that, considered together, the bar’s status as a “high-crime area,” the behavior of the vehicles’ occupants, and the presence of a known gang member in the other vehicle provided reasonable suspicion to believe she was engaged in illegal conduct.

¶11    An officer’s perception of a “high-crime area,” personal experience with violent incidents at the location, the lateness of the hour, his or her particular observations of irregular conduct, and a suspect’s unusual demeanor upon contact, together, support reasonable suspicion when those facts are viewed in concert. See, e.g., [State v.] Morgan, 197 Wis. 2d [200,] 204, 212-14[, 539 N.W.2d 887 (1995)]. Given [Officer] Brann’s own experience with the issues surrounding this bar (such as drug transactions, weapons use, and criminal gang problems), the remote location of the vehicles in the lot, and the occupants’ behavior as Brann approached, Brann reasonably had what he termed “heightened awareness” of possible wrongful activity at the time he requested that Ponfil remain in her vehicle.³ …. What is more, the behavior of the occupants in the opposite vehicle who first confronted Brann as he approached supported his decision to detain anyone in the vehicle occupied by Ponfil, given how and where the cars were aligned in the lot and Brann’s reasonable inference of the individuals’ familiarity with each other from that positioning.

¶12     Ponfil dismisses Brann’s observations as either subjective, post-hoc justifications or exactly the reception a reasonable officer may expect upon approaching a vehicle after shining a spotlight into it. Not so. Brann did not offer a mere conclusory assertion that the vehicle’s occupants “looked suspicious” without articulating any other facts. See Brown v. Texas, 443 U.S. 47, 52 (1979). More to the point, Brann expressly testified the response he received was not what he would expect in a similar situation based upon the particular reactions and surrounding factors. He instead perceived both a drastic demeanor shift in the occupants as he merely walked toward the vehicles and what he termed a “demanding” or “aggressive” response as he made contact with them. ….[T]hese observed behaviors may have innocuous explanations if considered alone, or even together with some of the other facts in this case, but Brann was not required to rule out those explanations before he acted on his training and experience and ordered Ponfil to remain in her vehicle. See [State v.] Waldner, 206 Wis. 2d [51,] 55-56[, 556 N.W.2d 681 (1996)].


³ Brann also testified that “his first thought” after Ponfil exited the vehicle was that someone was about to flee from the scene prior to his command to seize them. While neither the circuit court nor the State considered this statement in their reasonable suspicion analysis, it is clear that evasive action in response to police presence may at the very least be a factor under the totality of the circumstances. See State v. Anderson, 155 Wis. 2d 77, 84-85, 454 N.W.2d 763 (1990) (“Flight at the sight of police is undeniably suspicious behavior.”).

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • J leonard June 2, 2017, 5:41 am

    Barstalking OK?

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