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Racial profiling during traffic stops in Wisconsin

Thanksgiving is coming up later this week. From a criminal defense perspective, this is noteworthy for at least two reasons. The first reason is that the Wisconsin State Patrol and local law enforcement agencies will likely be increasing OWI enforcement this week. Many holidays are associated with increases in drunk driving, and law enforcement agencies increase patrols accordingly.

Because we have been writing a lot about race in the criminal justice system, this is also a good opportunity to discuss the fact that some people may be more likely to be stopped by officers not just this week, but any day of the year. This is due to the threat of racial profiling in traffic stops.

A document you can download from the Wisconsin State Patrol website is titled "Guidelines for motorists who are stopped by the State Patrol." The document contains frequently asked questions about traffic stops and other facts and statistics. An entire section of the document discusses profiling.

According to the guide, "Profiling by law enforcement officers means stopping motorists based on their race, color or ethnicity instead of any observed violation of the law. . . It is against the law."

If you are African American or someone who identifies with another racial minority, profiling is, unfortunately, an issue that you need to be aware of. This is especially the case if you were pulled over by a police officer for no easily discernible reason.

Racial profiling is not about whether you were driving drunk, had drugs in the car or were doing anything else illegal. It comes down to why you were stopped in the first place.

If you were pulled over because the officer noticed erratic driving or some other behavior that would reasonably lead them to suspect OWI, it would likely be considered a legitimate stop. If the officer gives you no reason for pulling you over and will not discuss the issue when asked, you may be able to argue racial profiling.

After being charged with OWI, drug possession or another crime, you and your attorney could file a motion to suppress evidence based on the illegitimacy of the traffic stop. If the stop is ruled invalid, any evidence obtained during the stop could be thrown out.

At the very least, you will want to report racial profiling if you believe you have been a victim of it. Instructions on how to report can be found in the document mentioned above.

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