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Wisconsin OWI conviction overturned for lack of probable cause

Many Wisconsin residents are familiar with "probable cause," but not everyone understands how important it is to protecting their freedom. Simply stated, probable cause means that a police officer can't make an arrest or conduct a search unless facts known to the officer provide the basis for a reasonable person to believe that a crime was committed or that evidence of a crime would be found in the place to be searched. 

A Wisconsin man who was arrested and convicted of drunk driving in 2010 recently had his conviction overturned. He successfully convinced an appellate court that the officer did not have probable cause to arrest him following a motorcycle accident.

The man crashed his motorcycle in a ditch on an evening in September 2010. The officer found him at the scene when he was already under the care of emergency responders. He then accompanied the man to the hospital.

Since he did not suspect drunk driving, the officer was about to leave the hospital when a nurse stopped him and said she'd heard the victim admit he had been drinking. The officer then asked the man some questions and gave him a breathalyzer. The results showed a blood-alcohol concentration of just 0.06 percent, which is under the legal limit.

The nurse then stopped the officer again and reportedly told him that a hospital blood test revealed that the motorcyclist had a BAC of 0.15 percent. The officer did not ask to see the test results. Rather, he simply arrested the man based on the nurse's claim. A post-arrest blood test later put the man's BAC at 0.118 percent.

The defendant later asked a judge to suppress evidence. The motion was denied and he pleaded no contest. He then appealed on the grounds that the officer had no probable cause to make the arrest.

The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the defendant, noting that the officer "chose rank hearsay over the report of an instrument [the breathalyzer] that is designed to give him an indication of impairment, that he operates himself, and that he relies on daily."

It ultimately doesn't matter that the post-arrest blood test showed the defendant to be over the limit, because he shouldn't have been arrested in the first place. As this case demonstrates, probable cause matters. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, an experienced criminal defense attorney can examine your case to ensure that your rights are protected and that you receive a fair trial.

Source: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "OWI conviction linked to phantom blood test reversed on appeal," Bruce Vielmetti, Sept. 5, 2013

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