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Court of appeals affirms traffic stop made due to mistake of fact

State v. Kelly W. Brown, 2018AP2382-CR, Distrct 4, 5/23/19 (1-judge opinion, ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

Deputy Weinfurter stopped Brown because he thought that Brown’s car had 6 headlights illuminated on its front rather than the maximum of 4 allowed by §347.07(1). The stop led to an OWI 2nd charge. Brown moved to suppress arguing that the deputy’s assumptions about the number of headlights on his car were unreasonable. Indeed his car had only 4 headlights.

The issue was whether the deputy had reasonable suspicion based on the totality of circumstances that Brown had committed a traffic violation. State v. Popke, 2009 WI 37, ¶23, 317 Wis. 2d 118, 765 N.W.2d 569.

¶10 “[A] search or seizure may be permissible even though the justification for the action contains a reasonable factual mistake.” Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S.Ct. 530, 534 (2014). A stop based on an officer’s mistake of fact falls within constitutional limits if the mistake is reasonable Id. at 536. The standard does not require an officer  conducting a traffic stop to be “perfect.” . . .

¶12 The circuit court determined that Weinfurter’s mistake of fact was reasonable. In reaching this decision, the court relied on the following evidence adduced at the suppression hearing: Weinfurter had thirteen years of experience on nighttime traffic patrol; Weinfurter testified that he saw six lights on the vehicle (specifically, “headlights [or low beams] and high beams as well as … some sort of fog lamp or auxiliary lamp lit … for a total of six lights”); and Weinfurter testified that the lights “were probably the brightest lights [he had] ever seen.” Based on that evidence, the court determined that Weinfurter “had reasonable suspicion that [Brown’s] vehicle had more than four lamps lighted.”

Brown moved the circuit court for reconsideration arguing that Weinfurter’s mistake of fact was not reasonable because it assumed–unreasonably–that a vehicle typically has two lights in a headlamp–one for high beams and another for low beams. Really, headlamps contains one multi-filament bulb. He likened his case to State v. Houghton, 2015 WI 79, 364 Wis. 2d 234, 868 N.W.2d 143, where among other things the court held that an officer unreasonably assumed that the vehicle at issue was registered in Wisconsin and had to have have 2 license plates. This argument failed because:

Brown provides no evidence of the prevalence of multifilament headlights that would render unreasonable Weinfurter’s assumption, based on his observation, that the headlamps he saw had separate bulbs for high and low beams. Opinion, ¶18.

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