Reversing vehicle direction in search area didn't justify a search, appeals court says
By Gretchen Schuldt
A Forest County deputy overstepped when he searched a vehicle because the driver turned the car around at night within a mile of where another person fled a traffic stop, a Court of Appeals judge ruled Tuesday.
"We cannot conclude that (Brady R.) Adams’ driving late at night, one-half hour or more after a suspect had fled the scene of a traffic stop within the vicinity of an active police search for that suspect, paired with Adams’ turning around on a street with a dead end, would lead a reasonable officer to suspect that Adams had committed, was committing, or was about to commit a crime, or any wrongdoing for that matter," District III Court of Appeals Judge Mark A. Seidl wrote in his opinion.
In reversing Forest County Circuit Judge Leon D. Stenz, Seidl threw out Adams' conviction for second offense drunk driving and sent the matter back to Circuit Court.
Sheriff's Deputy William Hujet testified in Circuit Court that he was looking for a person who fled a traffic stop when another deputy passed the word that a car was approaching. Adams was that car's driver. Hujet began to follow him.
Adams turned onto a road "that had no houses or lights, had woods on one side, and had a somewhat open space on the other," Seidl wrote. As Hujet drove by, he saw Adams brake, stop, turn the car around and then travel in the direction he had just come from, toward the original traffic stop.
When asked at a suppression hearing why he stopped Adams' car, Hujet said he was looking for the fleeing suspect, Seidl wrote.
"He explained, based on his prior experiences, that somebody fleeing on foot would use his or her cell phone to request to be picked up," Seidl said. "With that in mind, Hujet explained that what 'really caught [his] attention' was Adams’ stopping and turning around, specifically on an unlit road with no houses that was mostly surrounded by woods. Hujet testified that he did not recall anything wrong with Adams’s driving before stopping him."
Hujet said testified that he could smell intoxicants and that Adams' speech was slow and slurred, Seidl wrote.
Defense lawyer Robert A. Kennedy Jr. filed a motion to suppress evidence, alleging Hujet lacked reasonable suspicion to search Adams' vehicle, but Stenz denied it.
On appeal, the state argued that Hujet acted reasonably based on the totality of the circumstances – the stop occurred at night, Adams was fairly near the traffic stop from which the person fled; and Adams turned his car around.
Seidl, though, said that Hujet didn't know at the time whether either the fleeing suspect or Adams had a cell phone, or whether there was a relationship between Adams and the fleeing suspect, or that anyone got into Adams' car when he stopped and turned around, or that the suspect asked Adams to pick him up because he was fleeing police.
"Without such evidence, we cannot determine that Hujet had a reasonable suspicion that Adams was attempting to wrongfully aid the suspect in flight from the police, Seidl wrote.
"Hujet transferred the reasonable suspicion of criminal activity attributed to the fleeing suspect onto Adams simply because he was driving within the search area," he said.
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