State v. Houghton

Citation868 N.W.2d 143,364 Wis.2d 234
Decision Date14 July 2015
Docket NumberNo. 2013AP1581–CR.,2013AP1581–CR.
PartiesSTATE of Wisconsin, Plaintiff–Respondent–Petitioner, v. Richard E. HOUGHTON, Jr., Defendant–Appellant.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin

For the plaintiff-respondent-petitioner, the cause was argued by Tiffany M. Winter, assistant attorney general, with whom on the briefs was Brad D. Schimel, attorney general.

For the defendant-appellant there was a brief by Andrew R. Walter, Elkhorn, and oral argument by Andrew R. Walter.

An amicus curiae brief was filed by Hannah Schieber Jurss, assistant state public defender, with whom on the brief was Kelli S. Thompson, state public defender, on behalf of the Office of the State Public Defender.



¶ 1 This is a review of an unpublished decision of the court of appeals,1 which reversed a judgment of conviction entered by the Walworth County Circuit Court2 against Richard E. Houghton, Jr. (Houghton). Houghton pled guilty to one count of possession of THC (greater than 200 grams) with intent to deliver, following the circuit court's denial of Houghton's motion to suppress evidence obtained during the course of a traffic stop.

¶ 2 This case presents questions related to the standard necessary for police to lawfully initiate a traffic stop. Specifically, we consider whether an officer's reasonable suspicion that a motorist is committing a traffic violation is always sufficient for the officer to stop the motorist, or whether some stops require probable cause. We also examine statutes related to the placement of objects in the front windshield of an automobile, and weigh the effect of recent developments in case law related to objectively reasonable mistakes of law made by law enforcement officers.

¶ 3 Police Officer Jeff Price (Officer Price) pulled Houghton over after Officer Price observed Houghton's vehicle traveling on a highway without a front license plate and with an air freshener and a GPS unit visible in the front windshield. Upon approaching the vehicle, Officer Price detected the odor of marijuana, which led him to conduct a search of Houghton's car. The search revealed approximately 240 grams of marijuana as well as various paraphernalia commonly used for packaging and distributing marijuana.

¶ 4 Houghton argues that the stop was not an investigatory stop, and thus probable cause was required. Houghton contends that Officer Price lacked probable cause to stop Houghton's vehicle, making the subsequent search unlawful. The State counters that reasonable suspicion is sufficient for police officers to initiate any type of traffic stop, and that Officer Price had reasonable suspicion to pull Houghton over for a violation of Wis. Stat. § 346.88(3)(b) (2011–12),3 “Obstruction of operator's view or driving mechanism.” The State argues in the alternative that any mistake by Officer Price as to whether Houghton was operating his vehicle illegally was objectively reasonable, and that under the holding of the recent United States Supreme Court case of Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ––––, 135 S.Ct. 530, 190 L.Ed.2d 475 (2014), Officer Price had reasonable suspicion to stop Houghton's vehicle for the perceived violation.

¶ 5 We hold that an officer's reasonable suspicion that a motorist is violating or has violated a traffic law is sufficient for the officer to initiate a stop of the offending vehicle. We also adopt the Supreme Court's holding in Heien that an officer's objectively reasonable mistake of law may form the basis for a finding of reasonable suspicion.

¶ 6 In this case, we hold that Wis. Stat. § 346.88 does not create an absolute prohibition on any object being present in the front windshield of a vehicle. However, Officer Price's interpretation that the statute did create such a prohibition was objectively reasonable. Accordingly, Officer Price had reasonable suspicion to stop Houghton's vehicle, and it was not error for the circuit court to deny Houghton's motion to suppress. For these reasons, we reverse the court of appeals.


¶ 7 At approximately 12:30 p.m. on April 16, 2012, Village of East Troy Police Officer Jeff Price was on duty in a marked squad car on the shoulder of Highway 20, facing east, near Townline Road in East Troy. Around that time, Officer Price saw a blue Ford Taurus traveling westbound on Highway 20. The car had no front license plate, and an air freshener suspended from the rearview mirror and a GPS unit were visible through the front windshield. Officer Price did a U-turn, activated his squad car's emergency lights, and pulled the Taurus over.

¶ 8 Officer Price approached the Taurus and obtained identification from the occupants. The car, which had a Michigan license plate attached to the back, was driven by the defendant, Richard E. Houghton, Jr., who is a resident of Michigan. In the front passenger seat of the car was James J. Taracek (Taracek), Houghton's step-brother and a resident of East Troy. After running a check on both Houghton and Taracek, Officer Price returned to the Taurus, this time approaching the passenger side. As he approached, Officer Price smelled the odor of marijuana coming from the car.

¶ 9 Officer Price searched the car and found the following: “two partially smoked marijuana cigarettes, a pack of zig-zag rolling paper, a piece of PVC tubing with a screen taped on one end, a large zip-lock bag containing green plant material, three smaller sandwich bags containing green plant material, a 150 count pack of sandwich bags, and an AMS digital scale with traces of green plant material on the weighing base.” The “green plant material” tested positive for Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active ingredient in marijuana. The large “zip-lock” bag contained approximately 140 grams of marijuana, the three smaller sandwich bags each contained approximately 30 grams of marijuana, and the PVC tube contained approximately 9 grams of marijuana.

¶ 10 In an information filed on June 5, 2012, Houghton was charged with one count of possession with intent to deliver THC (200 to 1000 grams), contrary to Wis. Stat. § 961.41(1m)(h)(2). On July 31, Houghton filed a motion with the circuit court seeking suppression of the evidence obtained during the search of his vehicle. Houghton argued that the lack of a front license plate on his car and the items in his windshield were not violations of Wisconsin law. Houghton contended that “because no traffic violations occurred, [Officer Price] lacked the reasonable suspicion to justify a Terry stop.”4 Therefore, Houghton argued, the stop violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

¶ 11 The State answered Houghton's motion to suppress on October 16. The State argued that Officer Price had reasonable suspicion to stop Houghton for three observed violations: the absence of a front license plate, the items in the front windshield, and a missing side mirror.5

¶ 12 The circuit court held a motion hearing on November 2, at which Officer Price testified briefly about his encounter with Houghton. At the end of the hearing, the circuit court denied the motion. The court was equivocal about whether the GPS unit and air freshener were statutory violations, noting that “there must be a zillion cars driving around with air fresheners and not very many of them would get stopped by the traffic officer. They've got better things to do.” However, the court continued, “the princip[al] reason for the stop that creates this reasonable and articulable suspicion is the front license plate missing from a vehicle, missing on Wisconsin roads when Wisconsin requires two plates.”

¶ 13 After denial of his motion to suppress, Houghton pled guilty to the count as charged at a hearing on February 13, 2013. As part of the plea agreement, the State recommended a two-year sentence consisting of one year of imprisonment and one year of extended supervision, imposed and stayed on the condition that Houghton complete two years of probation and pay a $500 fine plus costs. After a plea colloquy, the court entered a judgment of conviction and accepted the sentence recommendation, allowing for the possibility that Houghton would serve probation in Michigan.

¶ 14 Houghton appealed his conviction. On appeal, Houghton argued that the circuit court erred by denying his motion to suppress evidence. Houghton maintained his argument that Officer Price lacked reasonable suspicion to stop Houghton's vehicle. The State conceded that Officer Price made a mistake of law with regard to the license plate requirement. The State also conceded that under State v. Longcore, 226 Wis.2d 1, 9, 594 N.W.2d 412 (Ct.App.1999), a mistake of law could not form the basis for a traffic stop. The State argued, however, that the items in the front windshield of Houghton's car gave Officer Price sufficient reason to pull Houghton over.

¶ 15 In an unpublished per curiam decision, the court of appeals reversed the judgment of conviction and remanded the case to the circuit court. State v. Houghton, No. 2013AP1581CR, 2014 WL 1797665, unpublished slip op. (Wis.Ct.App. May 7, 2014). The court provided little explanation for its ruling, noting that:

the only objects near Houghton's front windshield were a standard-size, pine-tree-shaped air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror and a three-by-five-inch GPS unit attached to the lower left-hand corner. On these facts, we are not persuaded that there was probable cause to conclude that a violation of § 346.88(3)(b) had occurred.

Id. at 5.

¶ 16 The court of appeals did acknowledge that the Supreme Court had recently granted certiorari in State v. Heien, 367 N.C. 163, 749 S.E.2d 278 (2013), which addressed whether a reasonable mistake of law could provide grounds for a traffic stop. Houghton, No. 2013AP1581CR, at 4 n. 3. The court noted that the decision in Heien could place the holding of Longcore in doubt, and “suppose[d] the State [could] petition the Wisconsin...

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