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Defense win! Riding a bike at night doesn’t suggest criminal activity

State v. Jere J. Meddaugh, 2022 WI App 12; case activity (including briefs)

Wearing black clothing and riding a bicycle across publicly accessible school grounds in the middle of the night while a Safer at Home order is in effect does not constitute reasonable suspicion that a crime is being committed. So says the court of appeals in a decision that is recommended for publication.

Meddaugh, dressed in black, was pedaling a bike with a flashing light across school grounds at 12:39 a.m. on a Sunday. He was not near a high-crime area. A Safer at Home order was in effect. A deputy saw him, turned on the squad car spotlight drove toward and then alongside him, and told him to stop. Meddaugh ignored the deputy and continued pedaling at the same pace across a street then onto a sidewalk. At that point, the deputy seized Meddaugh and discovered that he possessed methamphetamine.

The circuit court denied Meddaugh’s motion to suppress. The court of appeals reversed because, given the totality of the circumstances, the deputy’s investigatory stop was not supported by reasonable suspicion–i.e. “specific and articulable facts that warrant a reasonable belief that criminal activity is afoot.” State v. Young, 2006 WI 98, ¶21, 294 Wis. 2d 1, 717 N.W.2d 729. Indeed, the court of appeals rejected every argument the State made in support of reasonable suspicion.

For starters, the way a person is dressed can contribute to reasonable suspicion. Think ski mask and hoodie. State v. Matthews, 2011 WI App 92, ¶11, 334 Wis. 2d 455, 799 N.W.2d 911. However, Meddaugh’s black clothing did not because his bike had a flashing red light, he maintained a normal pace, he wasn’t trying to hide, and he never tried to evade the deputy.  Opinion, ¶17.

The State and circuit court found it suspicious that Meddaugh rode across school grounds in the middle of the night. But the court of appeals noted that the record contained no evidence that the school grounds were unsafe or closed to the public at that time. Opinion, ¶18.

Next, the court of appeals flatly rejected the idea that being outside during a pandemic provides reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct.

¶21 . . . The mere fact that there were fewer people outside due to the pandemic or the Safer at Home order does not support a conclusion that those who were outside might commit or plan to commit crime—and certainly not a solitary bicyclist riding in an ordinary manner through an area where, at least so far as the evidence here shows, the public had a right to freely travel.

Nor did the time of day suggest criminal activity. Meddaugh wasn’t lurking behind a bush at 12:39 a.m. He was riding a bike with a flashing light across open school grounds. Opinion, ¶22.

The court of appeals also discounted Meddaugh’s failure to stop even though the deputy yelled “stop!” That’s because the deputy had no basis for stopping Meddaugh. “Where a police officer, without reasonable suspicion or probable cause, approaches an individual, the individual has a right to ignore the police and go about his business.” Young, 294 Wis. 2d 1, ¶73 (quoted source omitted). Opinion, ¶23.

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