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Appeals court finds use of high beams justified stop, upholds OWI conviction

The fact that a man was tailgating a semi with his high beams on was reason enough for a State Patrol officer to stop the driver on I-94 and charge him with drunken driving, ruled appeals court judges.

In a decision filed March 23, the District III Court of Appeals upheld Robert Tomaszewski's conviction of driving while intoxicated, fifth or greater offense.

In September 2008 St. Croix County Judge Edward Vlack sentenced Tomaszewski to five years in prison, but stayed the sentence with the condition that he serve a year in jail after he concluded an Eau Claire County sentence.

In his appeal Tomaszewski, 43, argued that evidence of his intoxication should have been suppressed because police lacked a reason to conduct a traffic stop.

He was charged with driving while intoxicated Aug. 4, 1999.

State Patrol Inspector Kirk Danielson, the only witness at a hearing on whether or not to suppress evidence, testified that at about 1:15 a.m. he noticed a white four-door car driven by Tomaszewski following closely behind a semi. The car had its high-beam headlights on.

Danielson stopped Tomaszewski and saw that his eyes were glassy and bloodshot and his speech was slurred. The officer, who also smelled alcohol, conducted field sobriety tests and arrested the man.

Judge Vlack found the traffic stop was justified, basing his decision on the state law that requires a nighttime driver who approaches or follows another vehicle within 500 ft. to "dim, depress or tilt the vehicle's headlights so that the glaring rays are not reflected into the eyes of the operator of the other vehicle."

Tomaszewski argued there was no evidence that his car's high beams reflected into the semi driver's eyes. Besides, he insisted, because a semi has no rear windshield through which lights could shine, the light from behind couldn't shine into the driver's eyes.

The appeals court disagreed, concluding that the law doesn't require proof that the headlights reflect into the eyes of another driver.

"Tomaszewski's interpretation would require an ordinary driver using high beams to know whether his or her headlights will impair another driver's vision," wrote the appeals court. "This interpretation is absurd; drivers are in no position to determine whether their vehicles' high beams glare into the eyes of other drivers.

"To avoid this problem, the statute assumes the use of high beams within 500 feet will cause impairment, and prohibits their use."

Judy Wiff

Judy Wiff has been regional editor for RiverTown’s Wisconsin newspapers since 1996. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from UW-River Falls. She has worked as a reporter for several weekly newspapers in Wisconsin.