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Traffic stop justified because officer saw driver drinking out of a brown bottle

State v. Timothy J. Relyea, 2014AP2860-CR, District 4, 6/18/15 (one-judge decision; ineligible for publication); case activity (including briefs)

Put down that Sprecher® Root Beer if you’re behind the wheel! It could get you pulled over by a sharp-eyed cop who is knowledgable about the bottling practices of the beverage industry.

Relyea was stopped on “a clear, sunny day” (no better time for a root beer!) after a police officer going in the opposite direction noticed Relyea “‘guzzling’ from what appeared to be a bottle of ‘microbrew’ beer.” (¶3). The officer thought it was a microbrew because (we are not making this up) “it had a darker tint than the officer thought was normally used in bottles containing non-microbrew beers.” (¶3 n.2). But really, who would “guzzle” a microbrew? That kind of beverage is supposed to be sipped and savored. Root beer, on the other hand, especially on a clear, sunny day….

But we digress, so back to the matter at hand: The well-worn reasonable suspicion standard says that when an officer sees conduct that can reasonably be inferred to be lawful or unlawful, the officer has the right to temporarily detain the individual “for the purpose of inquiry” without first ruling out the possibility of innocent behavior. State v. Waldner, 206 Wis. 2d 51, 60, 556 N.W.2d 681 (1996). Under that standard, the officer’s observations in this case gave him reasonable suspicion to believe Relyea was drinking alcohol while driving a vehicle in violation of § 346.935(1):

¶10      …. Relyea states that “many people drink legal beverages from bottles and cans in their cars.” It is true that people frequently drink non-alcoholic beverages from containers such as bottles while riding in vehicles. However, as the State aptly argues, “A reasonable inference after seeing someone drinking out of a bottle that looks like a beer bottle is that the person is, in fact, drinking out of a beer bottle.” A reasonable officer in the position of the officer here could have drawn alternative, innocent inferences, but this does not matter under the legal standards stated above.

Lest you think this is something that might happen only in Wisconsin, we did find one other court that came to the same conclusion—though in that case (unlike Relyea’s) the police also observed conduct that suggested the driver was impaired (driving northbound in the southbound lane of a parking lot and stopping in the middle of a driving lane in front of a drinking establishment). City of Overland Park v. Hersh, No. 97,180 (Kansas Ct. App. June 8, 2007) (unpublished and nonprecedential).

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