State v. Joel R. Davis, 2020AP731, 8/19/21, District 4 (recommended for publication); case activity (including briefs)

A police officer stopped Davis’s car in the early evening. He initially said it was because Davis lacked a passenger-side mirror. But it turns out that’s not illegal. Wis. Stat. § 347.40. So the next day–and despite having failed to mention it to the other officers at the stop, which was video recorded–he “updated” his report to say that actually, he’d stopped Davis for a seatbelt violation. But the body-cam video shows that Davis’s seatbelt was fastened when the officer initially approached the car.

A real mystery. But despite the trial court’s evident skepticism (n.5) about the cop’s story, it didn’t make a ruling on the lawfulness of the initial stop. Instead, it held that regardless of its initial validity, the stop was illegally prolonged while the officer investigated what conditions might be attached to Davis’s bond in a case from another county. The court of appeals affirms.

The most important SCOTUS case on the prolongation of traffic stops is Rodriguez v. United States, 575 U.S. 348 (2015), which held that a routine traffic stop can’t go on longer than “the time reasonably required to complete the mission” of issuing a ticket and completing “ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop.” “Ordinary inquiries” are checks that “serve the same objective as enforcement of the traffic code: ensuring that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly.” The Court said such inquiries “typically … involve checking the driver’s license, determining whether there are outstanding warrants against the driver, and inspecting the automobile’s registration and proof of insurance.” Our own state supreme court provided a gloss on Rodriguez in State v. Smith, 2018 WI 2, ¶10 n.9, 379 Wis. 2d 86, 905 N.W.2d 353, which “distinguished between ‘ordinary inquiries,’ which are ‘part of’ the mission of a traffic stop, and ‘unrelated inquiries,’ which are not. (¶24).

Here, the officer learned that Davis had a pending case in another county, and he arranged for another officer to contact someone–perhaps the other county’s clerk of courts, though the opinion doesn’t say–to find out what his bond conditions were (and thus whether he might be violating any of them). During the twelve minutes this inquiry lasted, the officer “sat in his squad car doing nothing.” (¶8).  The state argues that determining a stopped driver’s bond conditions should be inaugurated into the “ordinary inquiries” club. The court of appeals soundly rejects the state’s argument on this point, and, the state having offered no other arguments, affirms the circuit court’s suppression of the drugs eventually found on Davis:

First, as stated above, the “typical” ordinary inquiries—those recognized in Rodriguez—are checking driver’s licenses, requesting proof of vehicle insurance and registration, and checking for any outstanding warrants. Our supreme court has balked at the suggestion that this list should be expanded to include all tasks that could, in some indirect sense, be said to promote officer safety or to ensure that vehicles on the road are operated safely and responsibly….

Second, the State does not point to any decision by any court that has recognized bond condition checks as ordinary inquiries, and our independent research has not revealed any such case. If we were to accept the State’s invitation to expand the typical ordinary inquiries to include bond condition checks, we would be the first court to do so….

Third, despite asking us to expand the previously recognized ordinary inquiries to include bond condition checks, the State provides little information about what such checks would entail. The State does not direct us to any database that is readily available to Wisconsin officers on patrol and that contains information concerning a person’s bond conditions. Here, in response to Officer Thompson’s inquiry, it appears that dispatch was required to call someone in La Crosse County—presumably someone with access to court records—to determine whether Davis was subject to any such conditions. In this case, it took dispatch twelve minutes—an amount of time that is not negligible—to obtain an answer, and information about bond conditions may not always be even that readily available during future traffic stops.

Fourth, we reject the State’s argument that bond condition checks should be considered ordinary inquiries because they promote officer and roadway safety…. [I]n Rodriguez, the Court determined that a dog sniff to detect the presence of drugs was not part of the stop’s mission and could not be justified as relating to safety concerns stemming from the mission of the stop. Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 355-57. As the court explained, “[h]ighway and officer safety are interests different in kind from the Government’s endeavor to detect crime in general or drug trafficking in particular.” Id. at 357. A dog sniff “lack[ed] the same close connection to roadway safety” as the recognized ordinary inquiries. Id. at 356

As noted, the amount of time it takes to complete bond condition checks may not be negligible. And the State makes no cogent argument as to how such checks directly promote officer and roadway safety…. [T]he State does not articulate any objectively reasonable basis for concluding that an inquiry into bond conditions is needed to further any safety interests that stem from a routine traffic stop for an equipment or seatbelt violation. Accordingly, we conclude that checks for bond conditions lack the “same close connection” to officer and roadway safety as the recognized ordinary inquiries. See Rodriguez, 575 U.S. at 356.

(¶¶27-30).

The court goes on to reject the state’s argument that bond-condition checks are sufficiently analogous to warrant checks to justify their inclusion in the “ordinary inquiries” category. The court notes that unlike with a warrant, the existence of a bond will not necessarily authorize an officer to take the motorist into custody: the officer will first have to find out what the conditions are and then decide whether any of them have been violated. Thus, the court says,

bond condition checks are objectively understood as the first step of an impermissible inquiry, unsupported by reasonable suspicion or probable cause, into whether the motorist is committing an additional crime of bail jumping at the time of the stop. This runs afoul of the prohibition against prolonging a stop to conduct unrelated investigations that detour from the stop’s mission.

(¶35).