Wisconsin Justices Toss Drug Charge Based on Driver’s License Retention

The case centered on whether a woman arrested for drug possession was unlawfully seized without probable cause when a police officer took her driver’s license to his squad car for a background check and didn’t give it back while questioning her.

(Image by Hebi B. from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

MADISON, Wis. (CN) — The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Friday handed down a ruling in a case over whether an unconstitutional seizure has occurred when police take a driver’s ID to their squad car without reasonable suspicion of a crime.

According to Friday’s decision, Sheboygan police stopped Heather VanBeek on the night of Nov. 12, 2017, based on an anonymous call saying two people were suspiciously sitting in a truck parked on the street for over an hour, during which time a third person came to the car with a backpack and left without it.

Though the responding officer had no suspicions after talking to VanBeek and her passenger, he took their IDs to his squad car and ran background checks. No outstanding warrants came up, but the officer learned VanBeek had overdosed earlier that year and that her passenger was under supervision.

The officer called for a drug-sniffing dog unit based on this information, then proceeded to question VanBeek and her passenger in order to buy time while waiting for the K9 unit to arrive. The dog unit eventually confirmed the presence of drugs and a search turned up one gram of methamphetamine and a pipe, for which VanBeek was arrested.

VanBeek was convicted in Sheboygan County Circuit Court despite her efforts to suppress the drug evidence on the basis that her traffic stop was unlawfully extended. She appealed, and the appellate court punted the issue to the Wisconsin Supreme Court as a certified question as to whether police taking someone’s license to their squad car without reasonable suspicion turns a consensual encounter into an unconstitutional seizure under the Fourth Amendment.

Writing for high court’s majority, Justice Patience Roggensack declined to make a bright-line rule answering that question, instead finding the answer is based on the totality of the circumstances surrounding the stop.

Roggensack said that “what may begin as a valid and consensual encounter can rise to the level of a seizure” if an officer, say, retains someone’s driver’s license without reasonably suspecting a crime has been committed.

The majority decision concluded that, based on the context of VanBeek’s stop, she was not seized when the officer took her license to his squad car to run a background check.

However, “we conclude that VanBeek was seized when [the officer] returned to her vehicle, retained her driver’s license, and continued to pose questions to her and [her passenger] in order to prevent them from leaving before the K9 unit arrived,” Roggensack said.

“A reasonable person in VanBeek’s position,” Roggensack continued, “would not have felt free to drive away and terminate the encounter with [the officer] while he retained her driver’s license” and continued questioning her.

The court ultimately reversed VanBeek’s conviction and sent the case back to the circuit court with orders to grant her motion to suppress the drug evidence police found in her car.

Other justices took issue with aspects of the majority decision on Friday.

Justice Rebecca Dallet concurred that the officer’s repetitive questioning unlawfully seized VanBeek, but was joined by the court’s other two liberals in finding that VanBeek was effectively seized when the officer took her license to his car, as a reasonable person would not feel they could leave at that point.

Conversely, recently appointed Chief Justice Annette Ziegler’s dissenting opinion, joined by two of the court’s conservatives, offered that VanBeek was neither seized when her license was taken to the officer’s car, nor when the officer returned, kept her license and peppered her with follow-up questions.

Taking the interaction as a whole, “it is clear that VanBeek was free to ask for her driver’s license back and end the interaction,” making the encounter consensual and not a seizure, Ziegler said.

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