12/11/2015Tossed Cigarette Goes To Wisconsin Supreme Court
Wisconsin Supreme Court takes hard line against littering from an automobile.
Wisconsin is so serious about combating littering that prosecutors took a case to the state's highest court a cigarette tossed out a car window. Last year, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals did not even bother publishing the decision in which it threw out charges against motorist Daniel S. Iverson, concluding that motorists may only be pulled over for suspicion that they have committed a traffic offense or a crime. Littering does not fall into either category in Wisconsin.
The Badger State punishes littering with a fine of up to $500, but no jail time, as the offense is classified as a "civil forfeiture." The high court decided last month that the Court of Appeals was wrong and that police officers are in fact empowered to pull motorists over for non-traffic civil forfeiture offense committed by a passenger.
The justices considered Iverson's traffic stop, which took place on Rose Street in La Crosse on September 18, 2013. Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Michael Larsen saw Iverson's silver Jeep and found the driving a bit suspicious because he stopped at an intersection that had a flashing yellow light, but this was not illegal. Then he saw a cigarette fall from the passenger side of the Jeep.
"Prior to the cigarette butt being thrown out of the vehicle, I didn't feel at that point before that I had the reasonable suspicion to initiate a traffic stop on it," Trooper Larsen testified. "I was [going to] continue to follow the vehicle to observe more information."
Based on this testimony, the lower court believed the littering charge was a mere pretext, and that the trooper did not have sufficient probable cause for the traffic stop. The Supreme Court justices blasted Iverson's attorney for suggesting that a tiny cigarette dumped on the road was a small matter because everyone does it.
"If the image of masses of cigarette butts strewn throughout the streets of a Wisconsin city is meant to suggest that the disposal of cigarette butts along highways is somehow a de minimis offense under Wisconsin Statutes Section 287.81, it fails to persuade," Justice Annette Kingsland Ziegler wrote. "The cumulative effect of improper waste disposal is a demonstrable example of why littering is problematic."
The justices noted that the law's definition of the powers of a police officer specifically mention the ability to stop vehicles to enforce the littering statute.
"Under the court of appeals' interpretation, an officer would be required to sit idly by even if an individual threw an entire bag of garbage out of a vehicle's window, simply because littering is a non-traffic civil forfeiture offense," Justice Ziegler wrote.
Because the traffic stop was upheld, Iverson will now be tried for drunk driving. A copy of the ruling is available in a 350k PDF file at the source link below.