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Police had reasonable suspicion to seize person in area of a “shots fired” call

State v. Larry Alexander Norton, 2019AP1796-CR, 4/14/20, District 1 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

In which the occupant of a legally parked car becomes the object of police scrutiny, for very little apparent reason, and all is found to be copacetic under the Fourth Amendment.

Police responded to a report of “rapid gunfire shots” at Locust and North Booth Streets. There was no description of a shooter or suggestion that a vehicle was involved. But police approached a legally parked vehicle on North Booth, shined their take-down light on the car, and discerned what they thought were furtive movements by the driver, who turned out to be Norton. The officers approached the car, saw a clear plastic baggie containing—what else?—”a green, leafy plant-like substance,” and ordered Norton out of the car. When officers attempted to detain Norton so they could search the car he fled, but was chased down. (¶¶3-6).

Norton argues the police had no reasonable suspicion to seize him by approaching his car and ordering him out to get out. The court of appeals isn’t persuaded:

¶13     …[T]he trial court based its finding of reasonable suspicion on three primary factors: (1) that there was a report of shots fired; (2) that the location was in a high-crime area; and (3) that Norton had made “furtive movements” when the officers directed their spotlight into the vehicle. ….

¶14     …[W]e agree with the trial court that the totality of these circumstances constituted reasonable suspicion for making contact with Norton. The officers were investigating a report of shots fired, for which they had very little information besides the general vicinity of the incident. The responding officer who testified at the suppression hearing stated that in responding to such a call, they look for anyone “walking around with a firearm; if there is anybody that’s been shot; if there’s anybody fleeing from the scene. Things along [that] nature.” Therefore, when they saw the parked vehicle that Norton was in, they shined their squad spotlight into it to “see if anyone had been shot inside of [the] car” or whether there was “anybody in the car that could be armed.” This was a reasonable action to take based on the officers’ training and experience. See [State v.] Young, 212 Wis. 2d [417,] 424[, 569 N.W.2d 84 (Ct. App. 1997)]

¶15     The second factor considered by the trial court involved the fact that the officers were familiar with the area from which the shots fired report had come. The testifying officer described it as “becoming troublesome” with “a lot of drug activities” and previous reports of shots being fired in the area.

¶16     This court has previously held that “[a]n individual’s presence in an area of expected criminal activity, standing alone, is not enough to support a reasonable, particularized suspicion that the person is committing a crime.” State v. Gordon, 2014 WI App 44, ¶15, 353 Wis. 2d 468, 846 N.W.2d 483 (citation omitted). ….

¶17     However, in this case, Norton’s presence in that area was not “standing alone”—it was accompanied by the information that there had been shots fired in the area, which the officers here were investigating. See id., ¶15. Furthermore, when they illuminated the vehicle with their squad spotlight, they saw Norton make “furtive movements”—the third factor considered by the trial court—which caused the officers to become concerned that he may have been trying to conceal a firearm, due to the nature of the call they were investigating.

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