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Reasonable Suspicion – Stop – Duration – Automobile — Prolonged to determine if Driver Had Valid License

State v. Vernell T. Williams, 2002 WI App 306
For Williams: Michael A. Haakenson
Issue: Whether a stop whose purpose (to investigate possible connection to an earlier crime) had dissipated was unlawfully prolonged by a checking the driver’s license.


¶19. In State v. Ellenbecker, 159 Wis. 2d 91, 464 N.W.2d 427 (Ct. App. 1990), we held that a request for a driver’s license from a driver whose vehicle was disabled, and a status check on the license, did not transform a lawful “motorist assist” into an unlawful seizure. …¶20. We next stated that Wis. Stat. § 343.18(1) (1999-2000) gives law enforcement officers the authority to require a driver of a motor vehicle to display his or her license on demand. …

¶22. For the reasons we relied on in Ellenbecker, we conclude that it was reasonable for Officer Garcia to make a report of the incident, even if she had already decided that the driver was not Williams, and for that purpose it was reasonable for her to ask for Williams’s name and identification. Once Williams stated that he had no identification, there was a reasonable ground for further detention. Under Wis. Stat. § 343.18(1), persons operating motor vehicles are required to have their licenses with them. The fact that Williams did not have identification was a violation of this statute and was a reasonable ground for suspecting that Williams was not authorized to drive. We conclude that Officer Garcia’s calling Officer Henderson because he knew many people was a reasonable means of identifying Williams, and, further, that once she knew the man was Williams, it was reasonable for her to ask dispatch to determine whether he had a valid driver’s license. 4

4 We observe that under State v. Ellenbecker, 159 Wis. 2d 91, 464 N.W.2d 427 (Ct. App. 1990), even if Williams had produced his driver’s license, Garcia could have lawfully checked on the status of his license.

Once they stop a car, police have authority to ask for and check on the status of the motorist’s driver’s license. (This authority ought to be kept in mind when reviewing routine traffic stop cases.) Williams was stopped because the police wrongly but reasonably believed his car matched the description of a car they were investigating. Even though Williams was cleared of that, the police were allowed to ask for his DL and, for better or worse, he didn’t have one — he then became subject to arrest for that offense. “Subject to” but not necessarily arrested in fact; the opinion doesn’t say, and it isn’t clear from the facts whether he was indeed arrested, see ¶4. The court apparently assumed that Williams was not then under arrest, ¶23: “Once Officer Garcia knew Williams did not have a valid driver’s license, she could at that point lawfully detain him further only for the purpose of giving him a citation for that violation, and, perhaps, for a violation of Wis. Stat. § 343.18(1), since the record discloses no basis for reasonably suspecting him of any other violation at that time.” In any event, evidence eventually was seized from the trunk of the car, the validity of which seizure turned on whether Williams properly consented, something the court analyzes in terms of prolonging the stop, as summarized below.Ellenbecker adopted, in Coffia v. State, 2008 OK CR 24 (“public interest in running a status check on a license” outweighs iminimal intrusion involved).


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