Civil Liberties

When a Cop Knocks on the Window, Just Drive Away (in Wisconsin)


Traffic stop
joker1020 / Foter

Fear no more that heart-in-throat moment when a police officer knocks on your driver's side window and you think to yourself, "oh shit. Now what?" Because the answer is to just put the car in gear and cruise away—at least, if you live in Wisconsin. Earlier this month, the state's Supreme Court ruled that a tap on the glass does not in and of itself give people reason to assume they've been detained, so they're free to go about their business.

Just don't roll over the cop's foot.

The decision actually came in a case that didn't work out to the defendant's benefit. On Christmas morning in 2011, Deputy Matthew Small of the Grant County Sheriff's Department noticed a car with its engine running in a parking lot. He found the vehicle's presence "suspicious." He parked directly behind the car, approached and knocked on the driver's side, and asked driver Daniel Vogt to roll down the window. The result was a blast of booze breath which got Vogt busted for drunk driving.

Vogt argued that Small had no reason to conduct a traffic stop, and that any evidence obtained by it should be suppressed. While the appeals court agreed with him, a majority on the supreme court reversed, saying that Vogt was under no duress and didn't have to interact with the deputy. Wrote Justice David T. Prosser for the majority:

Although we acknowledge that this is a close case, we conclude that a law enforcement officer's knock on a car window does not by itself constitute a show of authority sufficient to give rise to the belief in a reasonable person that the person is not free to leave.


The court adds, "The objective of law enforcement is to protect and serve the community. Accordingly, an officer's interactions with people are not automatically adversarial."

Do you ever get the impression that judges really don't interact with the same police officers the rest of us meet? Or at all?

For the record, Deputy Small told the court that if Vogt had revved the engine and driven away, that would have been fine by him because he "had nothing to stop him for."

Uh huh.

Vogt apparently felt a little boxed in during the encounter, and the appeals court agreed that "when a uniformed officer approaches a vehicle at night and directs the driver to roll down his or her window, a reasonable driver would not feel free to ignore the officer." But this is is a misinterpretation of "social instinct" to defer to authority, says the Supreme Court.

All right, then.

That leaves Vogt screwed. But Wisconsin residents are free to drive away from the cops. That's what the court says.