Appeals court throws out drug conviction, saying traffic stop was not legal

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Kevin Murphy/Special to The Gazette
Wednesday, May 7, 2014

MADISON--Wisconsin police officers need to know that some motorists do not have to display two license plates, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday in dismissing a felony marijuana conviction.

In overturning Walworth County Judge John Race, the District II Court of Appeals concluded that East Troy police officer Jeff Price lacked reasonable suspicion to pull over Richard E. Houghton Jr. of St. Joseph, Michigan.

Price noticed that a blue sedan approaching him on Highway 20 had air freshener hanging from a rear-view mirror and a GPS device attached to the windshield. The car also lacked a front license plate.

Believing the objects obstructed the motorist's view, Price pulled over the car and noticed a Michigan plate on the rear bumper. Michigan issues only one plate for passenger cars.

Price subsequently found marijuana, baggies and a digital scale in Houghton's car, according to the opinion.

Houghton, 44, was charged with possessing between 7 and 35 ounces of marijuana with the intent to deliver.

Houghton's attorney challenged the validity of the traffic stop, arguing that Price had no reasonable suspicion that Houghton was violating the law.

Race found that police “have better things to do than stop vehicles” with obstructed views similar to Houghton's. But Race said Price was not required to know license plate regulations in every state and had made a valid stop after seeing a violation of Wisconsin's two-license plate regulation.

After pleading guiltily to possession of marijuana with the intent to deliver, Race imposed but stayed a sentence of a year in prison pending appeal.

The appeal hinged on Price's probable cause to pull over Houghton.  Police have probable cause to conclude a traffic violation has occurred when there is a “quantum of evidence,” according to Wednesday's opinion.

Houghton's attorney contended there was no visible evidence for Price to reasonably conclude that Houghton probably was committing a crime

The state admitted that Price mistakenly believed Houghton was required to have a front license plate and that mistake can not be grounds for a valid traffic stop. However, the state hung on to the obscured view grounds that Race rejected.

The District II Court disagreed.

“(W)e are not persuaded that there was probable cause to conclude that a violation … had occurred. Because Price had no other valid reason to stop Houghton's vehicle, we reverse and remand for further proceedings,” according to the unsigned five-page opinion.

The decision invalidates the traffic stop and throws out the evidence and the conviction.

Dana Brueck, spokesperson for the attorney general's office, said the opinion was under review for possible appeal to the state Supreme Court.

If the decision is not appealed, Walworth County District Attorney Daniel Necci said the case still provides a teaching moment for police and prosecutors.

“That's an important role of our office; to help area law enforcement to do their job more efficiently and better. We talk to them about decisions and they talk to us as well,” he said.

Houghton's attorney, Andrew Walter of Elkhorn, was not available for immediate comment Wednesday.

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