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Reasonable Suspicion – Stop – Basis – Officer’s “Good Faith” Interpretation of Ambiguous Statute

State v. Michael M. Longcore (I), 226 Wis. 2d 1, 594 N.W.2d 412 (Ct. App. 1999), affirmed by equally divided vote, 2000 WI 23, 233 Wis. 2d 278, 607 N.W.2d 620
For Longcore: William E. Schmaal, SPD, Madison Appellate.

Holding: Longcore was stopped because his rear window was missing (it had been replaced with a plastic sheet). The state argues that this violated Wis. Stat. § 347.43(1) – an ambiguously written safety statute that may or may not have allowed the plastic covering instead of glass. The officer construed the statute to impose such a requirement. The trial court ruled that this interpretation was reasonable (which is to say, not necessarily correct), and that this reasonable belief was enough to support the stop, regardless of the statute’s “proper application.” As the court of appeals puts it, under this view, “‘reasonable suspicion’ may extend beyond the relation of articulable facts to the law and encompass an officer’s reasonable suspicion of what the law is.” The court of appeals rejects this view, because it is inconsistent with Wisconsin’s rejection of the good-faith exception to the warrant requirement, something that can be accomplished only the supreme court, not the court of appeals.  But the court ultimately rejects the trial court’s ruling on a separate basis: the officer didn’t act on reasonable suspicion, but on probable cause. That is, the situation wasn’t ambiguous – though the statute itself is – and the officer wasn’t conducting a temporary, “investigative” stop. Rather, the officer knew the window was covered with plastic, and he believed this to constitute an equipment violation. The court “conclude[s] that when an officer relates the facts to a specific offense, it must indeed be an offense; a lawful stop cannot be predicated upon a mistake of law.” The court “remand(s) the matter to the circuit court to determine whether the facts proven at the hearing constitute a violation of § 347.43(1).”

Appeal after remand: State v. Michael M. Longcore (II), 2001 WI App 15 (holding that Longcore in fact violates safety statute, therefore officer had probable cause). For somewhat more recurrent problem of whether crack in windshield violated safety statute so as to justify stop, see detailed discussion in Hilton v. State, FL SCt No. SC05-438, 7/5/07 (“for a stop to be constitutionally valid, the evidence must demonstrate an objective basis for concluding that the crack rendered the vehicle unsafe. The misconception that a vehicle may be stopped for any windshield crack or imperfection constitutes a mistake of law, and such a mistake cannot provide objective grounds for reasonable suspicion.”).


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