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Wisconsin court rules traffic stop unconstitutional in drug case

We have written many times in the past about the importance of Constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. Without the protective requirement to establish probable cause, police could search any person for any reason and file criminal charges based on what they found.

A Wisconsin appellate court recently ruled in favor of a defendant whose vehicle was stopped and searched in 2009 without established probable cause. An officer stopped the car solely because it was seen leaving a residence that was a suspected (but unconfirmed) methamphetamine lab.

A sheriff's deputy in Lincoln County was staking out a cabin in Wisconsin's North Woods. His investigation was based on a tip that a meth lab might be in operation at the property.

The deputy noticed a car leaving the cabin and driving down the long driveway. It turned around and headed back toward the property one time. When it eventually came back down the driveway and pulled onto the road, the deputy pulled the vehicle over.

There were two occupants in the vehicle, one of whom said that meth was indeed being manufactured at the cabin. The deputy then obtained a search warrant and was able to make the drug bust.

The driver of the vehicle filed a motion to suppress evidence because the stop was based on the fact that the deputy saw the vehicle leaving a suspected drug residence rather than an infraction which would have given the officer probable cause to pull the car over. A U.S. district judge upheld the legality of the stop. But recently, that ruling was overturned by an appellate court.

In its ruling, the court found that "A mere suspicion of illegal activity at a particular place is not enough to transfer that suspicion to anyone who leaves the property."

It is important to remember that the way in which law enforcement officers obtain evidence can be as important to the outcome of a criminal case as the evidence itself. Defendants charged in connection with drugs or any other serious crime may wish to speak to a qualified criminal defense attorney who can inform them of their rights and options.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "No, police can't stop just any car pulling away from a suspected drug site," Bruce Vielmetti, July 5, 2012

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