When should you be free to go after a traffic stop? The law only allows police officers to detain you if they have good reason to suspect you are involved in a specific crime. When they have no suspicion, they are supposed to let you go.
That didn’t happen for Heather V. in November 2017. Someone called the police anonymously because they thought two people sitting in a parked truck seemed suspicious. Moreover, a third person had come to the vehicle carrying a backpack and then had left without it.
The Sheboygan police came and talked to Heather and her passenger based on that anonymous phone call. After they had done so, they reportedly no longer entertained any suspicions about the pair.
Despite having no further suspicion of criminal activity, however, the responding officer took their IDs and ran background checks on them, searching for outstanding warrants. Neither person had an outstanding warrant.
Unfortunately, the officer learned some things he didn’t like about Heather and her passenger. He learned that Heather had overdosed earlier in the year. He also learned that her passenger was under supervision.
Based on this information, the officer called for a drug-sniffing dog. It would take some time for the dog to be brought to the scene, so he proceeded to question Heather and her passenger in an effort to buy time.
Ultimately, the drug dog alerted to the vehicle and a subsequent search turned up a single gram of meth and a pipe. Heather was arrested.
Lower courts couldn’t decide what was legal
Heather tried to have the drug evidence thrown out based on the theory that the traffic stop, which started out as a consensual encounter, had been unlawfully extended despite the lack of suspicion. The trial court refused to throw out the evidence, so Heather was convicted. She appealed.
The appellate court refused to rule. Instead, it certified the question of whether the police had unlawfully extended the search to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
The high court ruled for Heather, finding that the officer should have let Heather and her passenger go after determining there was no suspicion to hold them. Particularly because the officer had retained Heather’s driver’s license while he waited for the drug dog, the traffic stop was no longer consensual but a seizure.
That said, the supreme court did not rule that police officers may never act on information they obtain during a background check. It depends on the circumstances of the case. However, police are now on notice that they can’t unduly extend a traffic stop in order to bring in a drug-sniffing dog.