Evidence was lacking for traffic stop: Court

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Kevin Murphy
Thursday, October 13, 2011
— A phone tip from a suspicious ex-husband doesn't constitute reasonable suspicion for police to stop a driver suspected of being impaired, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday in a case involving a Walworth County woman.

The District 2 Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of evidence against Karen M. Lake, 36, of Lake Geneva, who was stopped and arrested for third-offense operating while under the influence of an intoxicant or other drug.

Her ex-husband, Michael Donahue, had phoned in a report he received about Lake being at a bar and leaving with the couple's two children.

Lake Geneva police officer Lucas Hansen didn't see Lake driving erratically on June 9, 2009, but he stopped her on the basis of the dispatcher's "attempt to locate" a possible intoxicated motorist with minor passengers. The dispatcher relayed information about Lake's vehicle and anticipated route Donahue received from a cousin who phoned him after seeing Lake at a tavern.

Tests after the traffic stop showed Lake had unprescribed medication in her system.

Walworth County Judge Robert Kennedy in November threw out the evidence, finding police didn't have reasonable suspicion to stop Lake.

Assistant District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld argued to Kennedy that there was a substantial public interest in stopping Lake quickly to check on the welfare of the children based on the father's concerns about them being in a car driven by an impaired person.

On appeal, Wiedenfeld limited his challenge to whether the information Donahue gave the dispatcher was sufficient to justify stopping Lake. Donahue not only identified himself but gave an accurate description of Lake's vehicle and destination, Wiedenfeld argued.

The appeals court ruled that those details were insignificant and that Donahue had failed to provide first-hand information about Lake's sobriety. Instead, police needed corroboration of what Donahue suspected.

"Donahue did not inform dispatch that the caller, his cousin or anyone else observed Lake behaving or driving in a manner that even suggested intoxication," according to the seven-page appeals opinion.

Lacking first-hand information, the police officer needed independent evidence to suspect that Lake was driving impaired. Instead, he pulled her over after following her for 100 feet and without seeing if children were in the car and without noting any traffic violations, according to the opinion.

The state didn't prove the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop Lake's vehicle, according to the opinion.

Wiedenfeld didn't return a phone call Wednesday seeking comment on the case.

Lake's attorney, C. Bennett Penwell, Whitewater, said he was "gratified" by the opinion and said it is "good law."

"While it's important to have impaired people off the road, especially those transporting minors, courts must balance a compelling desire to have roads safe and the rights of people against an untenable search," he said.

While tests showed Lake was driving with unprescribed medication in her system, there was no evidence that it impaired her ability to drive, Penwell said. State law makes it unlawful to drive after taking any amount of unprescribed medication, he said.

The opinion instructs dispatchers that they need to be able to verify information they receive before sending out a squad car, Penwell said. Had the dispatcher asked to talk directly to Donahue's cousin or if Hansen had seen some erratic driving, Lake's case could have gone the other way, he said.

Last updated: 6:44 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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