Probable Cause for a Pat-Down Search in Wisconsin

By Reddin & Singer

Cigarette Case

Both the United States and Wisconsin Constitutions protect Wisconsin residents from unlawful searches and seizures. This means law enforcement officers may not search an individual’s person, house, or property without probable cause to believe the individual is committing a criminal act. It is important to note, however, that the suspected criminal act does not have to be related to any incriminating evidence that may be uncovered.

In State v. Cobbs, the defendant was walking with two friends late at night in Racine. The three were apparently stopped for questioning by police officers who were responding to an armed robbery call. One of the three individuals attempted to flee the scene, and law enforcement officers used a taser on him. Since the robbery suspects were believed to be armed, the police then cuffed the defendant and his remaining friend and patted the two down for weapons. During the search, the officer discovered a padlock tied to a shoelace and a cigarette case that apparently contained marijuana on the defendant’s person. As a result, the defendant was arrested and charged in connection with his alleged drug possession.

At trial, the defendant moved to suppress the drug evidence. The officer who searched the man testified that he discovered the cigarette case while he searched the defendant for additional weapons after uncovering the padlock. The police officer also claimed he opened the cigarette case because weapons such as hypodermic needles and razor blades are small enough to fit inside such a container. Ultimately, the trial court held that it was reasonable for the law enforcement officer to continue searching the defendant after uncovering the padlock, and it refused to exclude the marijuana evidence. The defendant next pleaded guilty to possession of THC.

After that, the defendant filed an appeal with the Court of Appeals of Wisconsin. On appeal, the man claimed that the trial court committed error when it denied his motion to suppress the drug evidence. According to the defendant, the police officers lacked reasonable suspicion to stop him for questioning. In addition, the defendant claimed that the officer exceeded his authority when he removed and looked inside the man’s cigarette case.

First, the appellate court analyzed whether the law enforcement officer had reasonable suspicion to stop the defendant. According to the court, such a stop is a seizure under both the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and article I, section 11 of the Wisconsin Constitution. Because of this, the police officer’s suspicion must be reasonable, specific, and based upon articulable facts in order to be constitutional.

The appellate court found that the circumstances provided the police officers with reasonable suspicion to search the defendant because the friends matched the descriptions of armed robbery suspects believed to be in the area and one individual fled from police. The court added that it would have been unreasonable for the police to ignore the group given the circumstances at the time. Because of this, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that the stop was justified under both WIS. STAT. § 968.24 and Terry.

Next, the court addressed whether the police officers had reasonable suspicion to pat the defendant down for weapons. The court said WIS. STAT. § 968.25 provides a law enforcement officer who is engaged in a Terry stop with the authority to search a suspect’s person for weapons if the officer believes he or she may be in physical danger. The court stated it must determine whether such a search was reasonable by examining the facts that were known to the officer at the time of the pat-down. The court held the search was reasonable even though the defendant was in handcuffs when the cigarette case was discovered because the officer was looking for an armed robbery suspect and he found a makeshift weapon on the man. In addition, the court stated a continued weapons search was required in order to ensure the officer’s safety.

Since the trial court did not commit error when it refused to exclude drug evidence found on the defendant at trial, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling.

If you need the assistance of a seasoned Milwaukee drug crimes attorney, you should contact the law offices of Reddin & Singer, LLP. Our law firm provides free, no-obligation consultations to all prospective clients. Criminal charges can be difficult to deal with, but you don’t have to face them alone. If you were charged with marijuana possession, give the skilled lawyers at Reddin & Singer, LLP a call today at (414) 271-6400 or contact us online.

Additional Resources

State v. Cobbs, Wis: Court of Appeals, 2nd Dist. 2014

Photo Credit: smartpc, MorgueFile