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Defense win: parked car’s occupants were seized without reasonable suspicion

State v. Annika S. Christensen, 2022AP500, 9/9/22, District 4 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

Christensen was one of two occupants of a parked car after dark. A police truck approached, parked close behind her, and shined its takedown light into the car. At least one officer got out of the car and knocked on the window. In a carefully-reasoned, well-explained decision, the court of appeals affirms the circuit court’s holding that Christensen was seized at this moment, and that the police lacked reasonable suspicion for that seizure.

Crucial to the decision is the positioning of the truck relative to Christensen’s vehicle. A police seizure occurs when a “reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980). So in cases like this one, where the police park near a person’s vehicle and approach, it matters whether that person physically could leave; it particularly matters whether the police or their vehicle have prevented the person from doing so. The opinion notes cases in which no seizure was found: County of Grant v. Vogt, 2014 WI 76, ¶¶19, 24, 26, 356 Wis. 2d 343, 850, N.W.2d 253, and State v. Snyder, No. 2013AP299-CR, unpublished slip op. (WI App Oct. 2, 2014). It distinguishes those cases by the fact that here, the officers testified that “it would have been tight” and that they weren’t sure if Christensen could have gotten around their vehicles “in one maneuver.” (¶8.)

What’s more, in the trial court, the state presented some combination of squad and body-cam video which may have shed light on the positioning of the vehicles, but that video isn’t in the record on appeal. All the more reason, says the court of appeals, to defer to the circuit court’s conclusion that it would have been “very difficult” for Christensen to maneuver out of the lot, and more importantly, that she might reasonable have perceived that it was impossible for her to leave. (¶6 (citing State ex rel. Locklear v. Schwarz, 2001 WI App 74, ¶30 n.2, 242 Wis. 2d 327, 629 N.W.2d 30, for the idea that an missing record items are presumed to favor the lower court’s findings)). It reaches a similar conclusion with respect to the question of whether the officer knocked on the window, or whether it was instead open. See Vogt at ¶41.

The court of appeals concludes the positioning of the vehicles, the bright light shined into Christensen’s car, the approach of an armed and uniformed officer, and the knock on the window add up to a sufficient show of authority for a seizure. Interestingly, the state doesn’t argue that there was reasonable suspicion such that this seizure could be justified. It had originally prevailed in the trial court on this issue, but Christensen moved to reopen the evidence. It seems the state had argued that the parking lot had a history of drug dealing; Christensen’s open records request may have shown otherwise. Kudos to the defense attorney for checking the prosecutor’s and cops’ claims.

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