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Officer’s mistakes in entering license plate number for registration check didn’t invalidate stop

State v. Michael L. Joy, 2015AP960-CR, District 3, 7/26/16 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

An officer’s multiple good-faith factual mistakes didn’t invalidate his stop of a truck to investigate a possible registration violation.

On two separate occasions a short time apart, the officer entered the license plate number of a truck into his squad computer to do a registration check, and both times the check came back “no vehicle associated with the plate.” (¶¶3-4). While the officer had received that response in the past as a result of his entering incorrect information, it was also sometimes associated with clerical errors in the registration system that need to be fixed. (¶5). He decided to stop the truck. When he approached the truck he realized he had misread the plate number as FX-9605 when it was in fact FK-9605. Still, he went to talk to Joy, the driver, and when he did so he saw an open beer can and an uncased shotgun. (¶¶6-7).

Joy argues the officer acted in bad faith, and therefore unreasonably, because he made repeated mistakes in entering the information and knew the response “no vehicle associated with the plate” could be due to his mistaken data entry. (¶13). The court finds the argument undeveloped and conclusory, as it fails to dent the circuit court’s finding that the officer acted in good faith:

¶15     …. Other than claiming [Officer] Albrecht should not have made the same mistake twice, Joy fails to develop an argument that the court’s finding that Albrecht acted in good faith was clearly erroneous. The record supports the court’s finding, in that K and X are so similar as to be reasonably mistaken. The record does not reflect that Albrecht “knew” he incorrectly entered the license plate information; rather, Albrecht thought it was possible he entered the wrong information the first time based on his past experience.

¶16     Joy argues the only reasonable assumption Albrecht could make based upon the response Albrecht received on checking the license plate number twice was that he incorrectly entered the license plate information on both occasions. However, as properly noted by the circuit court, there were other reasonable alternatives to consider. An officer could reasonably suspect, as Albrecht did here, that Joy’s vehicle displayed an improper registration—an old or an unregistered plate, or even a fabricated plate. Those possibilities became even more likely when Albrecht obtained a clear view of the license plate and thought he verified the plate information a second time. The circuit court’s finding that Albrecht acted in good faith, despite repeated mistaken entries, is supported by the record. Given the totality of the circumstances, and despite two good-faith reasonable factual mistakes, Albrecht had a lawful basis to stop Joy’s vehicle as he reasonably suspected the vehicle was not properly registered.

Joy didn’t raise any issue regarding the officer’s decision to continue the stop once he realized he had entered the wrong plate number. (¶13 n.5). It certainly seems arguable that continued detention was unlawful under Rodriguez v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 1609 (2015), as the reason for the stop dissipated, though Wisconsin courts have allowed continued detention to identify the driver and determine his license status. See here and here for further discussion.

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