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Wisconsin appeals court agrees to suppress evidence in OWI case

When authorities charge a suspect with OWI, procedure matters. The way in which evidence is collected is as important as the evidence itself. If police violate due process or otherwise fail to follow procedure, a good criminal defense attorney can use that information to suppress evidence.

Recently, a Wisconsin appellate court upheld a lower court's ruling that evidence in a 2010 drunk driving case should be thrown out. The ruling stated that the arresting officer overstepped his bounds.

In January of last year, a police officer saw an abandoned Chevy Blazer that had crashed into some trees. Because he had previously seen this same car parked at a nearby house, he went to the house to investigate.

The man who answered the door admitted he owned the Blazer. According to the officer, the man made conflicting statements about where he had been that evening. Even though he was clearly safe at home, the officer handcuffed him and put him in the squad car because he suspected that the man's level of intoxication made him a danger to himself.

The man sat in the back of a squad car for 30 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, a tow-truck driver and several of the man's friends showed up at the house. They told the police officer they had been called by the defendant after he crashed his Blazer.

He was charged with OWI based on this evidence. However, a trial judge ruled that the evidence should be thrown out due to the officer's procedural violations. He said that the testimony of both friends and the tow-truck driver would probably not have been made if the defendant had not been unlawfully held outside in the squad car.

Furthermore, the arrest itself was not justified. The judge determined that the officer was not fulfilling a "community caretaker" function when he made the arrest. The appeals court agreed with the judge's earlier ruling and the evidence was suppressed.

Sometimes Wisconsin courts get it wrong and allow OWI convictions based on incomplete or circumstantial evidence. But in this case, justice was served. Both courts had the integrity to uphold and defend the rights of the accused.

Source: Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, "Prosecutors go 2-for-3 on OWI appeals," Bruce Vielmetti, Sept. 15, 2011

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