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What happens when an officer doesn’t know the law?

Police don’t have the right to pull over any car they want. In order for police to pull over a vehicle, the officer must have probable cause to believe that the driver has committed a traffic violation or a reasonable suspicion that the driver has committed a crime.

But what if the police officer doesn’t have the law right? That is the issue in a criminal case that the Wisconsin Supreme Court has agreed to hear.

The case involves a Michigan man who was pulled over in Wisconsin for three reasons: for having an air freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror, having a GPS device attached to his windshield and not having a front license plate, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.

During the traffic stop, marijuana was found in the man’s vehicle and he was charged with a drug crime.

The man pleaded guilty to the charge, and then filed an appeal, arguing that the drug evidence should have been suppressed because neither the items in his windshield nor his missing license plate warranted a stop.

He reasoned that only windshield items that “materially interfere” with a driver's vision are against the law -- not common items like an air freshener or a GPS device.

He also argued that since he car was registered in Michigan, where only one license plate is required, he was not in violation of the law for having one license plate.

On appeal, the officer testified that he believed all vehicles had to have two license plates under the law, and that any obstruction of the windshield was prohibited. Therefore, the officer admitted that he didn’t understand the laws.

The Court of Appeals overturned the man’s conviction because current state law holds that probable cause or reasonable suspicion for a traffic stop cannot be supported by an officer’s erroneous understanding of the law.

However, in the latest appeal, prosecutors are arguing that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling holds that an officer’s “objectively reasonable” mistake about the law can support reasonable suspicion. The Wisconsin Supreme Court could rule either way on the matter.

More about this important case to come…

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