State troopers can stop drivers for littering

Posted at 2:10 PM, Nov 25, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-25 15:10:04-05
MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- Smokers, beware. The Wisconsin Supreme Court says state troopers can legally stop you if you toss your cigarette butts on the road.
The court handed down the decision Wednesday in a case involving Daniel S. Iverson of Amery. According to court filings, Iverson was driving in La Crosse during the early morning hours on a January day in 2014 when a state trooper noticed his vehicle drift within its lane and stop at two yellow lights.
The trooper pulled Iverson over after Iverson's passenger tossed a cigarette butt out the window, a violation of the state's littering laws. The trooper ultimately cited Iverson for first-offense drunken driving.
A circuit judge dismissed the case, saying stopping Iverson for littering was an improper pretext since the passenger threw the butt out. A state appellate court affirmed the dismissal but on different grounds, ruling that police can't stop vehicles for non-traffic violations such as littering.
State attorneys appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
Iverson insisted his citations can't stand because the trooper lacked the legal authority to stop him based on the non-traffic-related littering law. He also argued that law prohibits depositing solid waste but a cigarette butt doesn't meet the statute's definition of solid waste.
Iverson's attorney, Joe Veenstra, submitted an affidavit saying he sees hundreds of discarded cigarette butts around his La Crosse office and he's never heard of anyone being cited.
The high court rejected Iverson's contentions and reversed the appellate court in a 6-0 decision.
Wisconsin law clearly grants state troopers the authority to enforce the littering law as well as the power to arrest someone regardless of whether the violation is punishable by forfeiture, like littering, or criminal penalty, the justices said.
Under the appellate court's decision, police couldn't do anything even if someone threw an entire bag of garbage out a vehicle's window since littering is a non-traffic civil forfeiture, they added.
As for Iverson's argument that a cigarette isn't solid waste, the court noted the littering law's definitions include "discarded materials." That's a broad term, the justices said, and they shouldn't limit it to omit cigarettes.
The justices also said Veenstra's affidavit doesn't persuade them that tossing cigarette butts on a highway is a minor offense. The cumulative effect of litter is exactly why littering is a problem, they said.
The court sent the case back to the circuit level for trial. Veenstra said he thinks the solid waste statute is confusing.
"An average person might not think tossing a cigarette butt is a reason to be pulled over," he said. "People should definitely be aware if somebody in your car throws a cigarette butt out, the police can stop you and you shouldn't do it."