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Wisconsin court overturns drug conviction for probable cause issues

When it comes to the American criminal justice system, rules and procedure matter a great deal. All citizens are innocent until proven guilty, and evidence obtained improperly or illegally by law enforcement cannot be used against defendants in court.

The constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure is more valuable than many people realize. Recently, this protection helped overturn the drug crimes conviction of a Wisconsin man, even though police had discovered marijuana in his possession.

The original incident occurred in June 2010 at an apartment building in Milwaukee. Residents of the apartment complex complained to management that they had seen the defendant carrying a shotgun. The manager passed this information onto a security guard and police were eventually notified.

Law enforcement did not speak directly to the alleged witnesses. Instead, seven officers came directly to the suspect's door and alerted him to their presence. When he opened the door, he was handcuffed while police conducted a search. There were no guns in the apartment, but marijuana was discovered in the man's backpack.

The defendant was subsequently convicted of drug possession, and the case was later appealed. Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals overturned the conviction for a number of important reasons. In addition to their failure to interview witnesses, the officers also searched the man's apartment without a warrant or his consent. They also lacked probable cause to enter, to make a protective sweep of the apartment and to arrest the suspect.

In short, the marijuana evidence was inadmissible in court because law enforcement had no justification for the search that led to its discovery.

Commenting on the ruling, the court noted that "Other than the complaints about actions that occurred days before, the police had no cause for alarm. Up until this point (the defendant) had done nothing to trigger the immediate and forceful response of the police. Indeed, if his actions, under these circumstances, entitled police officers to seize a person and enter to 'clear' the apartment, then almost every suspect who answers a door would be subject to seizure or arrest."

Procedure matters; and police often cut corners during investigations and arrests. For this and other reasons, anyone facing criminal charges should seek the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Pot conviction reversed over improper arrest, entry and search," Bruce Vielmetti, Feb. 13, 2013

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