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Traffic stop lawful because officer had probable cause to believe someone in car violated littering ordinance

State v. Jeramy J. Qualls, 2014AP141-CR, District 2, 10/8/14 (1-judge; ineligible for publication); case activity

Without resolving the burning issue of whether ash from a cigarette violates the Village of Pleasant Prairie’s littering ordinance, the court of appeals holds that a police officer lawfully stopped Qualls’s car because he had reason to believe someone in the car threw a cigarette out the window.

The parties expended some effort arguing whether the ordinance covers throwing out a cigarette but not tapping of the ash from a lighted cigarette. Qualls argues only the cigarette itself is covered, and that the stop was unreasonable because what the officer saw was ash, not a cigarette, which means the stop was based on the officer’s mistaken belief the ordinance had been violated. State v. Longcore, 226 Wis. 2d 1, 9, 594 N.W.2d 412 (Ct. App. 1999), aff’d by equally divided court, 2000 WI 23, 233 Wis. 2d 278, 607 N.W.2d 620. The court concludes this dispute doesn’t matter:

¶11    Regarding the debris that hit the windshield, [Officer] Andrews testified that he “could see that it was a cigarette butt.” On cross-examination, when asked if the debris could have been ash, Andrews said, “I don’t believe … from the … force of it hitting the windshield, it did not appear to be ash.” As stated above, probable cause does not require proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, “[p]robable cause refers to the ‘quantum of evidence which would lead a reasonable police officer to believe’” that a violation had occurred. [State v.] Popke, [2009 WI 37,] 317 Wis. 2d 118, ¶13 [, 765 N.W.2d 569] (citation omitted). Andrews’ testimony demonstrates his reasonable belief that the item that hit his windshield was a cigarette butt and that someone in Qualls’ vehicle had violated the litter law. We need not reach the question whether ash constitutes litter under the ordinance; Andrews testified that what hit his windshield was a cigarette butt.

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