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Wisconsin Supreme Court weighs vehicle searches

A case in front of the Wisconsin Supreme Court questions when police officers have reasonable belief to conduct searches without warrants after an arrest.

The high court heard oral arguments in State v. Mose B. Coffee on Jan. 21. The case involves an operating-while-intoxicated arrest that led to a search and additional drug-related charges. In 2017, an Oshkosh police officer pulled over Coffee for a missing license plate and said the man was slurring his speech, had bloodshot eyes and smelled like alcohol. Coffee was arrested after failing field sobriety tests, and police began searching his car.

Officers found a tote bag on the floor behind the driver’s seat containing two jars with marijuana remnants, cell phones and plastic baggies. A search of the car’s trunk turned up more marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

Coffee moved to suppress the drug evidence for the reason that he was originally arrested for an OWI related to drinking alcohol. He argued it was not reasonable for officers to believe they’d find OWI-related evidence in the bag behind his seat.

A circuit court denied the motion, ruling the search was lawful because the bag was within Coffee’s reach. An appellate court also concluded the search was lawful, but said the facts of the case were irrelevant because as a matter of law, police may always search the passenger compartment of a vehicle upon an OWI arrest.

The state Supreme Court is now considering both matters. The justices asked both attorneys about the application of Arizona v. Gant, the U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring law enforcement to demonstrate either a threat to safety or a need to preserve evidence in order to justify a warrantless vehicle search after a subject’s arrest.

Frances Philomene Colbert, a state public defender, said the decision to search the tote bag wasn’t supported by the standard of reasonable belief. She argued that evidence needed in an OWI prosecution typically doesn’t prove or establish the severity of the crime.

“This categorical approach to a Fourth Amendment search is contrary to the Constitution, contrary to Gant and other Fourth Amendment cases, and contrary to common sense,” Philomene Colbert said.

Chief Justice Pat Roggensack commented that it was also contrary to usual state Supreme Court precedent on the Fourth Amendment.

John Blimling, an assistant attorney general with the Wisconsin Department of Justice, said that when an arrest occurs for drunken driving, the driver’s privacy has been already diminished by the mere act of the arrest. The justices asked him if there was an OWI instance in which an officer wouldn’t have reasonable suspicion to search a vehicle.

“Honestly, I tried, and I couldn’t come up with one,” Blimling said. “I think the reality is that you’re going to end up in pretty much the same place under either approach.”

Justice Rebecca Dallet said there was no reason for the officers in this case, when began searching the car, to assume that an arrest for drunken driving would lead to the discovery of drugs. Blimling said searches for any substance would lead officers to the same places in a vehicle.

Justices Brian Hagedorn and Ann Walsh Bradley did not take part in the ruling. Hagedorn was one of the judges who decided the case when it was in appellate court.

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