Officers patrolling in Milwaukee noticed a vehicle idling and apparently unoccupied. One approached the vehicle and shined his flashlight through a window; he saw a person (Dillard) in the back seat who immediately ducked out of view (most of the windows were highly tinted, impeding the officer’s view). The officer opened the rear driver’s side door, and the person then opened and ran out the door on the other side. Other officers tasered and detained him. The officer who’d opened the door saw a handgun on the floor of the car, which ultimately led to Dillard’s conviction for carrying a concealed weapon.Accepting the parties’ agreement that the opening of the door was a search of the car–and thus required probable cause and either a warrant or a warrant exception–the court of appeals holds that the situation confronting the officers presented exigent circumstances:
Our review begins with the officer’s reason for opening the vehicle door: threat to his own safety and that of his fellow officers. We determine the reasonableness of the warrantless search in the totality of circumstances. The facts show that the officer was on bicycle patrol in the highest crime area in Milwaukee when he approached a running vehicle at around 10:00 p.m. Seeing no person in the front seat through the windshield, the officer illuminated his flashlight into the vehicle, which had very dark, tinted rear windows. The officer saw a person in the back seat and then saw that person duck down out of sight. Within seconds of approaching the vehicle, the officer opens the rear driver side door to make contact with the person who was otherwise hidden by the dark tinted windows. In the totality of circumstances, it is clear that the officer acted reasonably in furtherance of protecting himself and the safety of his fellow officers, which then constitutes an exigent circumstance and an exception to the prohibition on warrantless searches. The officer testified about his safety concerns and under the objective test, it would be unreasonable to ask the officer in this situation to delay making contact with an individual hidden inside a dark vehicle.
Dillard asserts that the police lacked probable cause to conduct the warrantless search. “Probable cause is a fluid concept, assuming different requirements depending upon its context.” County of Jefferson v. Renz, 231 Wis. 2d 293, 304, 603 N.W.2d 541 (1999). During a lawful investigation, officers “may conduct a warrantless search or seizure when ‘specific and articulable facts which, taken together with rational inferences from those facts, reasonably warrant that intrusion.’” State v. Kirby, 2014 WI App 74, ¶17, 355 Wis. 2d 423, 851 N.W.2d 796 (citation omitted). Here, the police had reasonable suspicion to investigate the silver Infiniti. When the officer observed that Dillard noticed the police presence and then ducked to the floor, it was reasonable for the officer to infer Dillard was trying to hide from the police. When faced with an unknown person hiding inside a vehicle with darkly tinted windows, we conclude it was reasonable for the officer to intrude by opening the vehicle door.