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Traffic stop – reasonable suspicion; good-faith mistake of fact

State v. Donald D. Laufer, 2012AP915, District 2, 4/3/13; court of appeals decision (recommended for publication); case activity

The officer’s erroneous reading of Laufer’s license plate, which caused the officer to wrongly believe that the plate might not be registered to the vehicle, nonetheless supported stop of the car under the good-faith rule, adopting the reasoning of State v. Reierson, No. 2010AP596, unpublished slip op. (Wis. Ct. App. April 28, 2011):

¶11      In Reierson, we analyzed a situation nearly identical to this one, where an officer stopped a vehicle for expired plates based on a misreading of the displayed plates. Reierson, unpublished slip op. ¶¶2-3. We observed that although Wisconsin cases have not directly addressed the issue, “as a general rule, courts decline to apply the exclusionary rule where an officer makes a reasonable, good-faith factual mistake.” Id., ¶9. To support that proposition, Reierson points to federal cases and law review articles, which we also find persuasive. See id.; see also United States v. Cashman, 216 F.3d 582, 587 (7th Cir. 2000) (where officer reasonably believed crack in windshield was long enough to violate statute, but it was not in fact, officer had probable cause to stop for traffic violation); United States v. Miguel, 368 F.3d 1150, 1153-54 (9th Cir. 2004) (“An officer’s correct understanding of the law, together with a good-faith error regarding the facts, can establish reasonable suspicion.” (citation omitted)); ….

¶12      Based on the reasoning in these authorities, the Reierson court concluded that so long as the officer’s misreading of the plate was in good faith, “the officer had a reasonable, if mistaken, belief that [the defendant] was operating a vehicle with an expired registration.” Reierson, unpublished slip op. ¶11. Likewise, the objective facts related by the officer supported a reasonable, if mistaken, suspicion that Laufer was driving a vehicle displaying incorrect plates based on the registration check he ran on the misread plates. We therefore adopt the reasoning set forth in Reierson and uphold the stop based on a good-faith mistake of fact in this case.

The court also rejects Laufer’s claim that the stop was unlawful because it was based on a mistake of law, distinguishing State v. Longcore, 226 Wis. 2d 1, 594 N.W.2d 412 (Ct. App. 1999):

¶9        Laufer further argues that the officer “was mistaken in his application of the law” when he stopped Laufer’s vehicle because Laufer was not actually in violation of any registration requirements. However, he does not dispute that the observations made by the officer before the stop did constitute a possible violation of the law. See Wis. Stat. §§ 341.15(3)(a) and 341.04(1). It turned out that the officer was mistaken in his observations as a matter of fact, but the facts related by the officer constituted a violation of the law. The mistake in this case was one of fact, not law….

As the officer approached the stopped car he realized he had misread the number on the license plate by one digit. (¶3). The officer continued to approach the car to tell the driver why he’d been stopped, and when he talked to the driver he noticed an odor of intoxicants. Approaching the car to tell the driver the reason for the stop is sanctioned by the cases, as noted in our post on Reierson, though we also noted this is a limit on, not expansion of, authority: the officer’s realization of his mistake terminates authority to continue the detention because its cause has dissipated. The odor of intoxicants then provided an independent basis for continuing the detention. See U.S. v. Jenkins, 452 F.3d 207, 212-14 (2nd Cir. 2006) (after stop based on reasonable but mistaken belief that vehicle lacked temporary license plates, officers noticed plates after car pulled over, dissipating suspicion; officers reasonably approach driver to explain reason for stop, and as they approached they immediately detected an odor of marijuana that gave an independent basis for continuing to detain the vehicle and its occupants).

See some possibility for abuse here? So did the defendant in Jenkins, 452 F.3d at 214 n.10, who warned of “rampant abuse” by police who “claim not to notice a license plate that complies with the law, detain motorists for non-existent motor vehicle violations, and then approach the driver to say ‘sorry’ while taking a sniff and a look inside.” While the court disagreed with his concerns, their explanation why helps focus  the questions and arguments at a suppression hearing:

Our holding here is limited by two key factors. First, the District Court reviewed and deemed credible the officers’ testimony regarding their reasonable but mistaken belief that the SUV lacked license plates…. Second, the District Court found that the odor of marijuana was immediately apparent as the officers approached the SUV. The officers had not detained the SUV for longer than necessary to briefly explain to the occupants the reason for the stop.

In other words, was the officer’s mistake reasonable and in good faith, or is the officer’s explanation for the stop incredible? Did the independent basis for continuing the detention appear immediately, or was the detention continued while the police looked (or sniffed) around for an independent basis? You will have to prevail on one of these questions to succeed in challenging a stop based on an officer’s claim of a good-faith mistake of fact.

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