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Objective Reasonableness: Mistakes of Law and the Fourth Amendment

Posted on in Criminal Defense

Objective ReasonablenessWhen you are about to be pulled over by law enforcement officers, you presume the officers pulling you over know the law, since they are charged with enforcing it. Usually, law enforcement officers are aware of the laws they are enforcing. Sometimes, however, law enforcement officers stop you based on their mistaken belief of the law — specifically, on an incorrect understanding of the law.

When a law enforcement officer has a mistaken understanding of the law, and this officer performs a traffic stop based on this mistake, the reasonableness of officer’s conduct will be evaluated by the trial court. The objective reasonableness test is applied in traffic cases because the Fourth Amendment protects individuals from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. As you can presume, law enforcement officers are required to make split-second judgments in many tense and unknown circumstances. The objective reasonableness test looks at a few factors, and the actions are:
  1. Judged through the perspective of a reasonable officer;
  2. With similar training and experiences;
  3. Facing similar circumstances;
  4. Acting the same way; and
  5. Based on the totality of the circumstances at the time of the arrest.

The Supreme Court’s Perspective on Objective Reasonableness

In December 2014, the United States Supreme Court in Heien v. North Carolina indicated that when a law enforcement officer

makes a reasonable mistake when performing a traffic stop, the objective reasonableness test applies. In that case, the law enforcement officer noted that the driver was “stiff and nervous” while driving, and that the officer followed the driver for several miles. The officer became suspicious when he asked questions regarding any contraband. However, the owner of the vehicle consented to a search of the vehicle, which resulted in the officer finding cocaine. The Supreme Court stated that the main focus of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, and reasonableness need not be perfect. The Fourth Amendment permits the government to make some mistakes, so long as they are reasonable.

Wisconsin Supreme Court Adopts Broader Version of Objective Reasonableness Test

The Wisconsin Supreme Court followed the United States Supreme Court’s lead in State v Houghton. Although Heien provided the framework to evaluate the reasonableness of traffic cases, Houghton goes one step further and allows officers to stop a vehicle for any reasonable mistake—reasonable suspicion justifies all traffic stops. In Houghton, a police officer stopped the defendant, who lives in Michigan, for traveling without a front license plate, with an air freshener and GPS device attached to the windshield. The officer smelled marijuana and searched the vehicle, finding approximately 240 grams of marijuana. The government pointed to Wisconsin Statute 346.88(3)(b), arguing that the officer had reasonable suspicion to pull the defendant over because he believed, although mistakenly, that the statute prohibited all items from being attached to the windshield. The Court concluded that the officer’s mistake was reasonable and that he had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant.

Consult an Attorney

If you were pulled over by a law enforcement officer and believe that the officer mistakenly arrested you for a crime that was not a violation of Wisconsin law, you should contact an experienced Milwaukee criminal defense attorney who will properly challenge the reasonableness of the officer’s conduct.

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