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"Wisconsin's law enforcement officers expose themselves to risk every time they hit the streets," says Van Hollen. "Today's decision means they don't have to take unnecessary risks when dealing with potential danger."
MADISON - This morning, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded that City of Racine police officers properly searched Melvin Bridges for weapons after stopping his car for a traffic violation. Adopting arguments made by attorneys for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the court concluded that the facts and circumstances of the traffic stop gave the officers reason to believe that Bridges posed a threat to their safety, and justified a pat-down search for weapons.
Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen praised today's decision. "Wisconsin's law enforcement officers expose themselves to risk every time they hit the streets," said Van Hollen. "Today's decision means they don't have to take unnecessary risks when dealing with potential danger."
Two Racine police officers stopped Bridges' car because of defective brake lamps. The officers made the stop at night, in a poorly-lighted area known for weapons use, and had no backup officers present. As the officers prepared to approach Bridges and his passenger, they saw Bridges reach down along his left leg toward the floor of the car in a shoving motion. Based on their experience, the officers believed Bridges was trying to conceal something-possibly a weapon-from their sight. The officers asked Bridges about the movement they observed, but Bridges gave no explanation. The officers then removed Bridges from his car, and a pat-down search revealed cocaine in his pocket.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals concluded that the pat-down search did not violate Bridges' Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Van Hollen explained: "When a police officer lawfully stops a person, she may conduct a pat-down search if she reasonably believes the person might be armed and dangerous. Here, the court concluded that the combination of circumstances faced by the officers made the pat-down search constitutionally reasonable."
From the decision and opinion in Bridges:
The protective search of Bridges during the investigatory stop was based on an objectively reasonable suspicion that Bridges had access to a weapon and presented a threat to the officers' safety in light of the totality of circumstances. As in Johnson, the traffic stop took place at night. However, here the stop occurred in an area that was "not good," was poorly lit and deserted at night, and was known for frequent gunfire. The requested backup had not arrived, and the initial reason that Bridges was stopped had not been resolved before the protective search took place. Both officers witnessed Bridges make a movement consistent with obtaining or concealing a weapon. These officers, each with over five years' experience in law enforcement, believed that Bridges may have been armed: Bridges was reaching toward his left front side, where a license or wallet is not usually kept, and [Officer] Dummer had experience with "a lot of people" who concealed weapons under their left leg close to the car door. [Officer] Spaulding recognized the shoving motion as consistent with an attempt to conceal a weapon or contraband.
Melvin Bridges is currently incarcerated at the Sturtevant Transitional Facility in Sturtevant, Wisconsin.
Today's decision and opinion of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in State of Wisconsin v. Melvin Bridges appears on the court's website:
The decision is recommended for publication. If published, it will become legal precedent for other Wisconsin courts.
The Racine County District Attorney's Office represented the State of Wisconsin in Racine County Circuit Court. Assistant Attorney General Katherine D. Lloyd represented the State in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.