By Gretchen Schuldt
Milwaukee police acted improperly when they questioned a driver they stopped for a broken headlight about whether he had a concealed carry permit and if he had any weapons in his car, an appeals court has ruled.
While the traffic stop was justifiable, there was nothing in driver John Patrick Wright's demeanor that supported any suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, Appeals Judge Joan F. Kessler wrote in her decision.
Kessler affirmed a ruling by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Hannah Dugan.
Wright, who is African-American, was stopped by two officers while driving on the city's north side in July 2016.
"Wright was asked whether he had a concealed carry permit and whether he had any weapons in the car," Kessler wrote. "Wright answered that he recently took a CCW permit course and admitted that he had a firearm in the car."
One of the officers, Jesus Gloria, found a handgun in the glove compartment. Wright was arrested and charged with misdemeanor carrying a concealed weapon.
Wright filed a motion to suppress the evidence, arguing that questioning him about the CCW permit and whether he had a gun violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
"The State misses the point." – Appeals Judge Joan F. Kessler
"Wright argued that police lacked reasonable suspicion to question him about a CCW permit and weapons in the car, the questions were unrelated to the purpose of the traffic stop, and the police conduct transformed an initially lawful stop into an unreasonable seizure," Kessler wrote.
The second officer involved in the stop, Kristopher Sardina, testified during a motion on the hearing that Wright pulled over immediately when police indicated he should do so and that Wright did not make any furtive gestures. Sardina also testified that officers are trained to ask about weapons during traffic stops.
Kessler rejected the state's argument that the officers had a legitimate safety interest and so did not unlawfully extend the traffic stop. Previous courts have ruled that questioning during traffic stops can be expanded beyond the reason for the stop only if their are additional legitimate "suspicious factors." Those factors were lacking in Wright's case, she said.
"Nonetheless, the State contends that Sardina’s questions were lawful because they were negligibly burdensome and did not add much time to the traffic stop," Kessler wrote. "The State misses the point. Authority for Sardina’s seizure ended when he reasonably could have issued a citation for Wright’s traffic violation. ...Wright was questioned and subsequently arrested with absolutely no articulated reason for Sardina to be concerned for officer safety."
"Sardina’s testimony confirms nothing about the circumstances of the traffic stop or about Wright which justified inquiry about a firearm," she concluded.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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