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Reasonable Suspicion – Stop – Duration – Traffic Offense – Prolonged by Questioning / Seeking Consent to Search

State v. Lawrence A. Williams/State v. Antwon C. Mathews, 2002 WI 94, reversing 2001 WI App 249, 248 Wis. 2d 361, 635 N.W.2d 869
For Williams: Thomas E. Knothe
For Mathews: Peter J. Thompson

Issue: Whether the traffic stop was unnecessarily prolonged so as to amount to an illegal seizure and invalidate consent to search the car.


¶27 Indeed, the circuit court made the following finding: “it is clear that, at least verbally, the trooper had given the defendant permission to be on his way.” Accordingly, the court of appeals properly focused its analysis on the events at the conclusion of the initial seizure, and immediately thereafter.8 Like the court of appeals, we see the case as calling for a determination of whether Williams was seized after the conclusion of the original traffic stop, when he was questioned about contraband and asked for permission to search.

¶28. This requires, as noted above, consideration of all the circumstances and application of an objective “reasonable person” standard. We know that questioning alone does not a seizure make, and the fact that this defendant–perhaps like most people–spontaneously and voluntarily responded to the officer’s questions is not enough to transform an otherwise consensual exchange into an illegal seizure. Delgado, 466 U.S. at 216; Drayton, 536 U.S. ___, 122 S.Ct. at 2112-13. We conclude that a reasonable person in these circumstances would not have considered himself compelled to stay and answer the officer’s questions. Stated positively, a reasonable person would have felt free to decline to answer the officer’s questions and simply “get on [his] way.”

¶29. That the officer had just invited Williams to “get on [his] way” strongly influences our conclusion. The officer’s words and actions, considered as a whole, communicated permission to leave, as the traffic stop was over. The officer did nothing, verbally or physically, to compel Williams to stay. That Williams stayed, and answered the questions, and gave consent to search, is not constitutionally suspect, and does not give rise to an inference that he must have been compelled to do so. Mendenhall specifically rejected this argument. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. at 555-56.

8 This case does not, therefore, present a question of whether the officer impermissibly exceeded the scope of or prolonged the initial seizure in violation of the Fourth Amendment. See State v. Griffith, 2000 WI 72, 236 Wis. 2d 48, 613 N.W.2d 72 (noting that a reasonable seizure can become an unreasonable one if the officer’s investigation extends beyond that which is related to the purpose of the stop, but holding that mere identification questions asked of a passenger do not make a seizure unreasonable); State v. Betow, 226 Wis. 2d 90, 94, 593 N.W.2d 499 (Ct. App. 1999) (holding that “the scope of the officer’s inquiry, or the line of questioning, may be broadened beyond the purpose for which the person was stopped only if additional suspicious factors come to the officer’s attention . . . .”); State v. Gaulrapp, 207 Wis. 2d 600, 558 N.W.2d 696 (Ct. App. 1996) (traffic stop not unreasonably prolonged by question about contraband in the car and subsequent request for consent to search).

Also see the very similar but crucially distinguishable case, State v. Reginald Jones / Maurice E. O’Neal, 2005 WI App 26 (consent to search car immediately after conclusion of routine traffic stop was (unlike Williams) product of illegal detention).

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