Wisconsin Supreme Court accepts two new cases

Madison, Wisconsin - January 30, 2015

The Wisconsin Supreme Court has voted to accept two new cases and has acted to deny review in a number of other cases. The case numbers, issues, and counties of origin of granted cases are listed below, as are hyperlinks to Court of Appeals’ decisions where available. Visit the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals Access website for more information about the status of any particular case.

2013AP1750 Dakter v. Cavallino
This negligence case arises from an accident between a semi-trailer truck and a car in which the driver of the car was badly injured. The central issue is whether the “superior skills” doctrine applies in a motor vehicle negligence action, such that a commercial truck driver is held to a higher standard of conduct than an ordinary automobile operator.

Some background: The accident occurred in Juneau County during May of 2008. Ronald Dakter was driving northbound on Highway 80 when he made a left-hand turn onto State Highway 82 (Tilmar Road) into the path of a semi-trailer being driven southbound on Highway 80 by Dale Cavallino.

Traffic on Highway 80 has the right-of-way and a right-turn lane for southbound traffic. Cavallino, who was travelling below the posted speed limit, testified at trial that his truck remained in the through lane on Highway 80. As he approached the intersection, Cavallino testified that Dakter suddenly turned in front of him.

Cavallino argued during pretrial motions, and to the jury, that Dakter violated his right-of-way, was negligent as to lookout, and that Dakter’s unexpected turn created an emergency immediately before the collision. Other defendants named in the lawsuit include Cavalliono’s employer, Hillsboro Transportation Company, LLC, and its insurer, Michigan Millers Mutual Insurance Company.

In contrast, Dakter argued that Cavallino was travelling too fast for conditions, failed to keep a proper lookout, and violated truck-driving safety standards.
Over Cavallino’s objection, the circuit court issued a jury instruction that Cavallino claims had the “practical effect of telling the jury that Cavallino must be held to a higher standard of care because he possessed a commercial driver’s license and had special training.”

Cavallino moved for a new trial based on the jury instruction, which included language used in professional negligence cases against health-care professionals.

The circuit court denied the motion, stating that the instruction accurately stated the law. Cavallino appealed, challenging the judgment on a variety of grounds. Dakter cross-appealed certain evidentiary rulings.

The Court of Appeals affirmed.

While acknowledging that the duty of care is the same, the Court of Appeals added that jurors may consider the actor’s superior knowledge or skills when the knowledge or skills give the actor an ability to avoid injury or damage to others. If someone “has skills or knowledge that exceed those possessed by most others, these skills or knowledge are circumstances to be taken into account in determining whether the actor has behaved as a reasonably careful person.”

Cavallino contends that the use of “professional negligence” language in the instruction was improper and directly contrary to existing law.

Cavallino cites Saxby v. Cadigen, 266 Wis. 391, 396-7, 63 N.W.2d 820 (1954) (duty of care when driving does not depend on “skill” or “experience”). Cavallino contends the Court of Appeals’ decision finding of “harmless error” will have “a far-ranging impact in motor vehicle negligence cases and will extend beyond cases involving commercial truck drivers.”

2013AP1581-CR State v. Houghton
The central question in this case is whether a traffic stop based on a police officer’s mistaken understanding of the law is in violation of the Fourth Amendment or the Wisconsin constitution, and whether evidence obtained as a result of such a stop should be suppressed.

Under existing Wisconsin law, a traffic stop by a law enforcement officer must be based upon probable cause (if the officer directly observed a crime or traffic violation) or reasonable suspicion (if the officer believes that a crime or traffic violation is occurring or is about to occur and additional investigation is needed). Prior Wisconsin cases have stated that the officer cannot have probable cause or reasonable suspicion if the officer’s belief of a crime or traffic violation is based on an erroneous understanding of the law. See, e.g., State v. Brown, 2014 WI 69, 355 Wis. 2d 668, 850 N.W.2d 66; State v. Longcore, 226 Wis. 2d 1, 594 N.W.2d 412 (Ct. App. 1999).

The Wisconsin Supreme Court will be reviewing that prior case law in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Heien v. North Carolina, No. 13-604. Heien held that a determination of reasonable suspicion, even if based on a mistaken understanding of what the law prohibits, can support a temporary traffic stop and investigation, provided the officer’s mistake of law is objectively reasonable. If it is not objectively reasonable, there could be no finding of reasonable suspicion under Heien. Moreover, the officer’s subjective belief in the proper interpretation of the law is not relevant.

Some background: Richard E. Houghton, Jr. pled guilty to possession of THC with intent to distribute. An East Troy officer had stopped Houghton’s vehicle, which was licensed in Michigan, because the officer believed that the vehicle had three traffic violations: (1) no front license plate, (2) a pine-tree-shaped air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, and (3) a GPS unit attached to the lower left corner of the windshield.

Houghton filed a motion to suppress, arguing that the traffic stop had not been supported by either probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Houghton asserted that Michigan, where his vehicle was registered, only provides a rear license plate, which meant that the vehicle was in compliance with the law. He also contended that he did not violate Wis. Stat. § 346.88(3)(b) because neither the air freshener nor the GPS unit obstructed his view through the front windshield.

At the evidentiary hearing on the motion, the police officer testified that he believed Wisconsin law to require a front and rear license plate on all vehicles. He also believed that Wis. Stat. § 346.88(3)(b) prohibited any type of obstruction on the front windshield.

The circuit court denied the suppression motion. It concluded that the officer’s belief that two license plates were required by Wisconsin law was reasonable. It did not rule on whether the windshield obstruction statute was violated by the air freshener or the GPS unit, although it noted 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.”

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the officer could not base probable cause on his mistaken belief that the law required both front and back license plates and that the air freshener and GPS units did not violate the relevant traffic law.

The state asserts that since the U.S. Supreme Court has now held that an officer’s reasonable suspicion of a crime or traffic violation can be based on a mistake of law, prior Wisconsin opinions, especially Longcore, should be revisited.

Houghton asserts Heien relates to the reasonable suspicion standard while his case relates to the probable cause standard. Houghton contends that the officer was not stopping him to engage in an investigative detention, as was the case in Heien, but rather, because the officer directly observed the missing license plate, the officer stopped him to cite him for traffic violations, which required a finding of probable cause.

A decision by the Wisconsin Supreme Court is expected to clarify whether Heien should be applied only to stops where reasonable suspicion is required and not to stops where probable cause is required. A decision also may clarify whether Wis. Stat. § 346.88(3)(b) prohibits any obstruction to the driver’s clear view through the front windshield, or only obstructions that materially interfere with the driver’s view through the front windshield.

Review denied: The Supreme Court denied review in the following cases. As the state’s law-developing court, the Supreme Court exercises its discretion to select for review only those cases that fit certain statutory criteria (see Wis. Stat. § 809.62). Except where indicated, these cases came to the Court via petition for review by the party who lost in the lower court:

2014AP13 Rice Lake Harley Davidson v. LIRC

2013AP1541-W Washington v. Hepp

2011AP1897-CRNM State v. Olivas
2013AP93 State v. Starks

2014AP396-CR State v. Godard

Eau Claire
2013AP1726 Bank of America NA v. Anderson

Fond du Lac
2014AP122-CR State v. Stellmacher

2014AP718-CR State v. Schmidt

2014AP1612-W Thums v. Cir. Ct. Jackson Co.

2014AP35 Anderson v. Douma
2014AP301-CR State v. Salzwedel

2013AP920-22-CR State v. Nieves
2013AP2864-CR State v. Garcia
2014AP141-CR State v. Qualls

La Crosse
2013AP2188-CR State v. Golatt
2014AP2122-W Maxy v. COA, Dist. II

2014AP30 State v. Svea

2013AP447-CR State v. Akins
2013AP1246-CR State v. Kobleske
2013AP1575-CR State v. Lombrano
2013AP2024-25-CRNM State v. Brown - Justice Patience Drake Roggensack did not participate.
2013AP2130 Collison v. City of Milw. Bd. of Rev.
2013AP2199 State v. Winters
2013AP2245 State v. Dunlap
2013AP2255-CR State v. Rivera
2013AP2304-W Groenke v. Hepp
2013AP2348-CR State v. Bamba - Justice Patience Drake Roggensack dissents.
2013AP2413-CR State v. Jones - Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson and Justice Ann Walsh Bradley dissent.
2013AP2557-CR State v. Lowe
2013AP2761-CR State v. Yang
2013AP2844 Tyler v. Hayes
2014AP198-99 State v. Harrell
2014AP404-05-CR State v. Roman
2014AP610 State v. Joel I.-N.
2014AP744-C State v. Finch - Chief Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson and Justice David T. Prosser, Jr. dissent.
2014AP988-99 & 2014AP1017 State v. Samantha J.
2014AP1924-NM State v. Jennifer R.
2014AP2537-W Bach v. Cir. Ct. Milw. Co.

2014AP1801-W Kingsley v. Hamblin

2013AP1903-W Marshall v. Gill

2014AP613-CR State v. Thom

2013AP1478 State v. Earl - Justice David T. Prosser, Jr. did not participate.
2013AP2110 State v. McGee
2013AP2758-CR State v. Mayer - Justice David T. Prosser, Jr. did not participate.
2013AP2803-CR State v. Estrada

2014AP1287-W Taylor v. Dittmann - Justice Ann Walsh Bradley did not participate.

2014AP178-CR State v. Trepanier

2013AP2592-CR State v. Chew

2014AP95 The Lakeland Times v. Lakeland Union H.S.

2013AP2465-CR State v. Hatton
2014AP738-CR State v. Hubbard - Justice David T. Prosser, Jr. did not participate.

2013AP2009-CR State v. Giese

2014AP220 State v. Kugler

2012AP1561-CRNM State v. Bohman

Tom Sheehan
Court Information Officer
(608) 261-6640

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