Supreme Court Permits Law Enforcement Officers to Inquire About Weapons in Vehicles

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently had the opportunity to address the issue of whether a police officer can ask a motorist, during a routine traffic stop, if the motorist possessed a valid concealed carry (CCW) permit and whether there were any fireams in the vehicle.  A discussion of the Milwaukee County Circuit Court and Court of Appeals treatment of this issue can be found in my November 7, 2018 article.  

The issue in this case revolves around a June 15, 2016, traffic stop of John Patrick Wright by two Milwaukee police officers.  During that stop, the officers asked Mr. Wright if he had a CCW permit.  Mr. Wright responded that he had recently completed a CCW class but did not yet have a CCW permit.  The officers then asked Mr. Wright if he had any firearms in the car and Mr. Wright answered that he had a gun in the glove box.  Mr. Wright was arrested and subsequently charged with carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.

Mr. Wright challenged the officers questioning as a violation of his 4th Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  The trial court and Court of Appeals both agreed that Mr. Wright’s rights were violated by the officers’ questions.

In a unanimous decision, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that Mr. Wright’s 4th Amendment rights were not violated.  In reaching its decision, the Court described the “mission” of a traffic stop as threefold: (1) to address the traffic violation that warranted the stop; (2) to conduct ordinary inquiries incident to the traffic stop; and (3) to take negligible burdensome precautions to ensure officer safety.  Within the framework of this mission, the Court addressed three issues. First, in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, may an officer ask a lawfully stopped motorist about the presence of weapons. Second, in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, may an officer ask a lawfully stopped motorist if the motorist holds a valid CCW permit.  Third, in the absence of reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, may an officer conduct a CCW permit check.

Addressing the first question, the Court found that asking whether there are any weapons in the vehicle is part of the stop’s mission because the question is a negligently burdensome precaution taken to ensure officer safety.  Thus, in all future traffic stops, police will be allowed to ask a stopped motorist, or any passengers presumably, about the presence of weapons in the vehicle, regardless of whether the officer has reason to believe that there are weapons in the car, that the motorist presents a risk to the officer’s safety, or that any weapons related crime is being committed by the motorist.

Addressing the second and third question, the Court found that asking a motorist whether he possesses a valid CCW permit or conducting a CCW permit check is not part of the mission of a traffic stop. Specifically addressing the issue of officer safety, the Court reasoned that knowing whether a person has a valid CCW permit does not make the officer any safer than the officer would have been in the absence of that knowledge and that it is the potential presence of a weapon that implicates officer safety, not whether the weapon is being lawfully carried.

Although the Court concluded that asking about a CCW permit status or conducting a permit check are not related to the mission of a traffic stop, the Court still found that Mr. Wright’s 4th Amendment rights were not violated.  In doing so, the Court recognized that inquiries unrelated to the mission of a traffic stop are permissible under the 4th Amendment so long as those inquiries do not measurably extend the duration of the stop. The officers testified that the questioning of Mr. Wright happened “pretty fast” and occurred within moments of the officers approaching his vehicle.  Under these circumstances, the Court found that the time it took the officers to ask Mr. Wright if he had a valid CCW permit was de minimis and virtually incapable of measurement and, therefore, did not measurably extend the duration of the traffic stop. Likewise, the Court found that the CCW permit check occurred concurrently with standard practice of running Mr. Wright’s information through their system and, therefore, did not impermissibly extend the traffic stop.

It is important to note that the Court indicated Mr. Wright’s 4th Amendment rights were not violated “in this instance.”  If a circumstance arose in which an officer’s questioning regarding CCW permit status extended a traffic stop beyond the confines of the “mission” of a traffic stop, a constitutional violation could potentially result.

Mr. Wright has the option of appealing the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s decision to the United State’s Supreme Court.  Further updating of this article will follow if such an appeal is filed and granted.

This article was authored through the collaborative efforts of Eric R. Pangburn and other legal professionals at West & Dunn, a law firm dedicated to providing high-quality legal services to individuals and businesses, with a particular focus on assisting veterans of the United States Armed Forces.