Watch Your Butt!

The ever-eroding 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took another hit in Wisconsin in 2015, courtesy of our Wisconsin Supreme Court. In State v. Daniel S. Iverson (cited as 2015 WI 101), our State’s highest court upheld a stop of the defendant’s car based upon a state trooper apparently witnessing a passenger in the car toss a cigarette butt out of the window. Following the stop of his car, the driver, Mr. Iverson, was investigated for and charged with drunk driving (OWI).

At both the trial court and court of appeals, Iverson was able to convince the courts that the stop was not authorized by current Wisconsin law, which allowed an officer to stop a vehicle if the officer reasonably suspected that either a crime or traffic violation (including an equipment violation) had been committed. As a result, the evidence that had been gathered by the trooper after the stop of Iverson’s car had been suppressed. This led to the dismissal of Iverson’s OWI charge.

The Supreme Court, however, took a broader view of the law regarding an officer’s authority to stop a vehicle. The high court concluded that the Wisconsin legislature did indeed authorize police to stop a vehicle based upon evidence of a non-criminal, non-traffic “forfeiture” violation such as littering (Wisconsin Statutes section 287.81). Therefore the stop in this case was legal, and Iverson’s OWI charge was reinstated.

Add this to the ever-growing list of reasons that you can get pulled over by police – not wearing a seatbelt, burnt out license plate light, high-mounted brake light not illuminated, cracked windshield – to name a few of the more disquieting reasons. Further, because the littering statute is so generally worded, it is conceivable that an officer could pull you over if he thinks you have thrown any “solid waste” out of the window, including, for instance, biodegradable items such as a banana peel or an apple core. But clearly, if you are a smoker, the best advice is to watch your butts (and make sure they don’t leave your car until you arrive at your destination).

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