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Thread: WI Supreme Court says traffic stop prompted by dangling air freshener OK

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    WI Supreme Court says traffic stop prompted by dangling air freshener OK

    Attention Wisconsin drivers: Consider removing that air freshener from your rear view mirror, or that GPS unit from your dash or windshield. The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a police officer could pull you over if the officer felt it was obstructing your view.

    In a case out of Walworth County, the court reversed the Court of Appeals, and held that a mistaken understanding of the law didn't invalidate the traffic stop a police officer made that led to a conviction for marijuana possession.

    Rather, it's enough that an officer has "a reasonable suspicion" of a violation, even if its based on an officer's statutory misinterpretation.

    Writing for the 5-2 majority, Justice David Prosser tried to assure that the ruling was not an interpretation that state law bans any object from a driver's windshield, only that in this case, an officer's belief that it did became reasonable suspicion to stop the driver.

    Prosser wrote that a "a material obstruction even if minor" of a driver's view could be considered a violation, leaving plenty of discretion for law enforcement to reasonably perceive air fresfresheners GPS units depending on their size and placement as reasons to stop a driver.

    In a brief dissent, Justice Shirley Abrahamson said the ruling flies in the face of two prior court rulings regarding when a traffic stop is reasonable, and was forced by the majority "solely in order to remain in lockstep with" a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a conviction that began with a traffic stop based on brake lights. Justice Ann Bradley joined the dissent, which argued that Wisconsin's constitution provides greater protections than the the. version.

    In that case, Heien v. North Carolina, an officer said he stopped a car because a taillight was out, which he believed to be unlawful. In fact, the state requires only one of two brake lights be operational.

    Richard Houghton Jr., 44, was driving in East Troy in 2012 when an officer pulled him over after noticing an air freshener hanging from Houghton's mirror, and a GPS unit on his windshield, both of which the officer claimed amounted to illegal obstructions of Houghton's view. The officer found marijuana in Houghton's car.

    Houghton argued that since he was not violating any laws, the traffic stop violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, and the marijuana should not be allowed as evidence.

    A judge agreed police shouldn't be stopping drivers over things as common as air fresheners and GPS units but upheld the stop because the officer also noticed that Houghton didn't have a front license plate. Houghton argued that his state, Michigan, supplies and requires only a rear plate, but the judge said the officer couldn't be expected to know the plate rules of every state.

    The Court of Appeals reversed Houghton's conviction and prosecutors appealed. By that point, prosecutors conceded that the missing front license plate was not a grounds for suspicion to stop a driver from a state that doesn't require one.

    Prosser noted that the Court of Appeals decision came before the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the North Carolina case.

    Since the trial judge in Houghton's case had upheld the traffic stop based on the missing front plate, the Supreme Court did address the issue.

    Prosser wrote that it is not an "objectively reasonable" mistake of law for an officer in Wisconsin to believe every vehicle operating on state roads must display a front plate. But, he wrote, if the officer had other reasons to think the vehicle was registered in Wisconsin for example, because it had a rear Wisconsin tag a stop for the missing plate would be lawful.

    Houghton had pleaded guilty in the Walworth County case, then appealed. He was sentenced to two years of probation, and the state took his 2000 Ford Taurus in a civil forfeiture.
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