This week, the Wisconsin Supreme Court released its decisions relating to requests to hear various appeals, including some that address municipal issues.
The court accepted a case that will address the issues of probable cause and reasonable suspicion based on an officer’s mistaken understanding of the law. In State v. Houghton, 2013AP1581, the officer’s initial stop Houghton, a resident of Michigan, was based on his failure to have a front license plate and the fact that he had an air freshener and GPS unit on or near the windshield. The officer later found marijuana in Houghton’s vehicle. While Wisconsin requires vehicles to have two license plates, Michigan only requires one. Wisconsin law also prohibits windshield obstructions, but the items in Houghton’s vehicle were commonplace. Therefore, Houghton argued the stop was based upon an improper understanding of the law, and the resulting evidence of drug possession should be suppressed. Wisconsin law has indicated that when an officer’s belief that a crime or traffic violation is being committed is based on an erroneous understanding of the law, the officer may not have probable cause or reasonable suspicion. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that the officer could not rely on a mistaken belief that the law required two license plates to establish probable cause, and the air freshener or GPS unit did not violate the traffic laws relating to clear windshields. The Wisconsin Supreme Court will review this decision in light of the very recent US Supreme Court case, Heien v. North Carolina, 135 S. Ct. 530 (2014). In Heien the Court held that even if based on a mistaken understanding of the law, reasonable suspicion may exist if the mistake of law is objectively reasonable. It will be interesting to see how Wisconsin precedent is affected by the court’s application of Heien.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court denied review of an unpublished Open Records decision in Lakeland Times v. Lakeland Union High School, 2014AP95. The Lakeland Times newspaper made an open records request to Lakeland Union High School (LUHS) seeking a report allegedly used by the board of education in hiring a new basketball coach. LUHS denied the request, claiming it was exempt from disclosure under §19.36(10)(d), Wis. Stats., as a record “relating to one or more specific employees that is used . . . for staff management planning.” The Court of Appeals agreed with LUHS, finding the record clearly fell within this disclosure exception. Further, the court explained that whether or not the report contained untruthful information was not relevant in determining whether the record was exempt from disclosure under § 19.36(10)(d). While the decision of the Court of Appeals was not published, it did not provide an extensive analysis of this issue and § 19.36(10)(d).
More details regarding the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision on acceptance and rejection of new cases can be found at https://www.wicourts.gov/news/view.jsp?id=636.