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Traffic Stop – Duration

State v. John R. Nelson, 2011AP125-CR, District 2, 12/7/11

court of appeals decision (1-judge, not for publication); for Nelson: John A. Nelson; case activity

The officer’s observation that Nelson’s vehicle intruded “somewhat into the intersection” before stopping provided reasonable suspicion for a stop-sign violation, § 346.46(1). The stop wasn’t unnecessarily prolonged by summoning a drug dog while the officer ran record checks and issued a warning ticket.

¶9        The circuit court found that Ray did not unnecessarily delay the traffic stop in order to give the K-9 unit more time to arrive, as its review of a tape of the traffic stop revealed that Ray did not take an unduly long time with his paperwork while he was awaiting the K-9 unit.  As this finding was not clearly erroneous, we affirm the circuit court’s conclusion that Ray did not unlawfully extend the stop.  See State v. Walli, 2011 WI App 86, ¶17, 334 Wis. 2d 402, 799 N.W.2d 898 (a circuit court’s findings of fact based on testimony and a video police recording are reviewed under the clearly erroneous standard of review).[2]

Unnecessary delay / unduly long time is a finding of historical fact? The basic framework is that historical facts form the premises for “conclusions of ultimate facts,” with the reviewing court deferring to trial-level findings of historical fact and independently determining whether those facts support the ultimate conclusion. E.g., State v. Martwick, 2000 WI 5, ¶¶16-17, 231 Wis. 2d 801, 604 N.W.2d 552. Put otherwise, it is long-settled and beyond dispute that, “In reviewing a denial of a motion to suppress, we will uphold the circuit court’s findings of fact unless they are clearly erroneous. Whether those facts satisfy the constitutional requirement of reasonableness is a question of law, which we review de novo,” State v. Young,212 Wis. 2d 417, 424, 569 N.W.2d 84 (Ct. App. 1997). Shouldn’t unnecessary delay be a conclusion, not a finding?

Potentially complicating the matter, the entire incident was captured on video, but the court cryptically notes: “we were unable to watch the police video of the stop, as the video included in the record was not compatible with the court’s DVD player. The parties do not, however, dispute the timeline of the events.  We therefore rely on the transcript of the police stop and testimony from the trial to conclude that the circuit court’s findings were not clearly erroneous,” footnote 2. Not that it matters in this particular case – it appears that the crucial facts, what happened when, were established by the suppression hearing transcript, ¶¶2-3 – but that the court of appeals might not have access to the same hardware as the circuit court is something the practitioner may want to keep in mind.

The undisputed facts show that the stop occurred at 12:16, with the dog summoned at 12:22, arriving at 12:32 and reacting at 12:35. Was the detention unnecessarily prolonged? That depends in large part, doesn’t it, on how long it took to write up the warning ticket? According to Nelson’s Brief (p. 7), the ticket had been written before the dog arrived. It may be that the detention was prolonged, but only minimally so and therefore not unreasonably. But that ought to be a matter for independent analysis, not knee-jerk deference to the trial court’s conclusion.

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