Wisconsin Supreme Court overturns appeals court ruling on Walworth County drug case

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Andrea Anderson
Wednesday, July 15, 2015

MADISON—The Wisconsin Supreme Court has ruled that an East Troy police officer lawfully initiated a traffic stop despite a misunderstanding of the law.

In an opinion released Tuesday, the high court decided East Troy police officer Jeff Price legally stopped Richard E. Houghton Jr. of St. Joseph, Michigan, for driving without a front license plate and for having an air freshener hanging from a rear-view mirror and GPS device attached to the windshield that blocked the driver's view.

In Michigan, a driver is required to have one license plate. Wisconsin drivers must display two if two are issued for the vehicle. If a driver is issued one plate in Wisconsin, the single plate must go on the rear unless it meets certain exceptions.

Houghton was charged in June 2012 in Walworth County Court with felony possession of marijuana with intent to deliver after his car was pulled over in April.

Price smelled marijuana, searched the car and found about 240 grams of the drug, baggies and a digital scale, the 33-page ruling states.

Houghton's attorney challenged the lawfulness of the traffic stop and argued Price had no probable cause and that Houghton shouldn't have been pulled over because Michigan law requires only one license plate.

The defense filed a motion, which was denied, to suppress evidence from the search of the vehicle because it was the result of an unlawful stop.

Walworth County Judge John Race said Price didn't need to know every state's license plate regulations and ruled the stop was valid. Race did not take up the issue of items hanging in the windshield.

Houghton pleaded guilty. Race imposed but stayed a sentence pending the appeal.

The District II Court of Appeals overturned Race's decision on the belief that Price lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Houghton and the motion shouldn't have been denied. The evidence and conviction were thrown out.

The state Supreme Court opinion stated that Price could stop Houghton—despite not knowing if he had to have one or two license plates—because of a “reasonable suspicion” and because the misunderstanding was “objectively reasonable.”

Justices Shirley Abrahamson and Ann Walsh Bradley dissented, saying the stop was unlawful because it was based on a misunderstanding of the law.

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