Imagine you’re out on a freezing January evening in Milwaukee. You stop at a liquor store, momentarily parking your car while you run inside. Unfortunately, you park less than 15 feet from an unmarked crosswalk.
The worst you could get is a $30 parking ticket, right? Unfortunately, the outcome could be much worse.
That situation actually happened, and the culprit was caught by members of the now-disbanded Milwaukee Police Neighborhood Task Force Street Crimes Unit. According to one officer, the unit’s goal was to “look for smaller infractions and hope that possibly they may lead to bigger and better things.”
Five officers surrounded the vehicle using two patrol cars. Seeing occupants inside, the officers approached and one officer reportedly noticed someone trying to hide something. The officers pulled everyone out of the car and handcuffed them. There was a gun on the floor of the car, and one occupant had a prior felony conviction. He was charged with and convicted of illegally possessing a weapon.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures by the government. Surely, having five officers in two squad cars swarm a parked car over a suspected parking violation is unreasonable under the plain language of the amendment.
Even if the courts found that a suspected parking violation was sufficient to justify such a search and seizure, there would be the issue of racial profiling. The man who was arrested was black, and in Milwaukee, black drivers are stopped by police seven times as often as white drivers and searched twice as often.
Yet the trial judge refused to exclude the evidence found as a result of this search and seizure. Although the defendant believed that the police had an ulterior motive for surrounding the car and ordering everyone out, the judge ruled justifications for searches and seizures are objective under U.S. Supreme Court precedent; it doesn’t matter whether the police used a pretext. Here, the possibility of a parking infraction gave the police sufficient justification to order the occupants out of the vehicle and question them.
A panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals and then the full court heard the case and upheld the trial court’s ruling. The defendant appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court declined to hear the case, leaving the 7th Circuit’s ruling in place.
That does not necessarily mean the 7th Circuit is right, but the decision creates precedent within the 7th Circuit itself, which includes Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. For now, our courts have determined that it’s reasonable under the Fourth Amendment for police to swarm a vehicle in response to a suspected parking infraction.