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Car in a ditch provides reasonable suspicion that traffic violation occurred

State v. David Lawrence Eastman, 2013AP1401-CR, District 3 (1-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity

A police officer may conduct a traffic stop when he has grounds to reasonably suspect that either a crime or a traffic violation has or will be committed.   See State v. Popke, 2009 WI 37, ¶23, 317 Wis. 2d 118, 765 N.W.2d 569; State v. Colstad, 2003 WI App 25, ¶11, 260 Wis. 2d 406, 659 N.W.2d 394. Here, an officer saw Eastman’s unoccupied car in a ditch, but did not know how it got there.  He left the scene, returned about 50 minutes later and saw the vehicle driving away from the ditch, so he stopped it, which ultimately led to Eastman’s 3rd OWI conviction and this appeal.

The court of appeals held that the officer had reasonable suspicion to perform an investigatory stop based upon a possible non-criminal traffic violation:  “A vehicle ordinarily does not go off a highway and end up in a ditch unless something is amiss. It is reasonable to infer that the vehicle ended up in the ditch because the driver committed a traffic violation  . . . Although Eastman may have had an innocent explanation for why he ended up in a ditch, we agree with the State that [the officer] was not required to rule out any supposedly innocent explanation for Eastman’s conduct before initiating the stop.” Slip op., ¶12.

This case underscores why counsel should always file a reply brief in support of a client’s appeal. The court of appeals noted that Eastman’s failure to file a reply brief in response to the State’s arguments meant that Eastman conceded the police had reasonable suspicion for the stop. The court simply offered its own analysis on top of the concession.


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