≡ Menu

Despite convincing evidence that domestic violence victim was fleeing for her life when stopped for suspected OWI, COA determines coercion defense unavailing

State v. Joan L. Stetzer, 2023AP874-CR, 3/27/24, District II (1-judge decision, ineligible for publication); case activity

In a difficult case demonstrating the stringent nature of Wisconsin’s coercion defense, COA affirms the circuit court’s decision that the defense did not apply to Stetzer’s conduct, notwithstanding a medley of uniquely sympathetic facts.

At a court trial for a second-offense PAC violation, Stetzer stipulated that she was above the legal limit when stopped by police. (¶2). The dispositive issue was whether the defense of coercion excused her conduct. (Id.). Even though the circuit court accepted all of the facts presented by Stetzer as true, it nevertheless concluded that the law did not support an acquittal under these circumstances. (Id.).

At her trial, Stetzer presented powerful evidence that she was the victim of frequent domestic violence perpetrated by her husband. (¶3). On the night in question, Stetzer had been drinking wine while cooking dinner. (¶5). An argument over her husband’s infidelity soon led to more violent abuse. (Id.). Although Stetzer’s husband left the home after the incident, he returned again later that same night. (¶6). Another violent encounter ensued. (Id.). At one point, Stetzer’s husband pushed her down the stairs. (Id.). Rather than seeking medical care, Stetzer tried to drink away the pain with two large glasses of wine. (Id.). At that point, things escalated even further, with Stetzer’s husband chasing her to the car with an improvised weapon while openly threatening her life. (¶7). Despite her intoxicated state, Stetzer fled from the home in the car, eventually deciding that she would drive to a second location 15 minutes away. (¶8). Although she thought about stopping when she passed a squad car, she later claimed that she was fearful police would not believe her story. (¶9). That same squad car eventually pulled her over for a suspected OWI. (Id.). Although the trial court was clearly sympathetic to Stetzer in its remarks, it ultimately concluded that the coercion defense did not apply to her conduct as her decision to continue driving after spotting the squad car was not permitted under the law. (¶12).

COA agrees with the trial court’s assessment and affirms. Crucially, it holds that § 939.46(1) contains a relatively narrow defense–the person must show that their actions are the “only means” of preventing harm. (¶15). “Thus, the defense requires both a reasonable belief that the actor is in imminent danger of death or physical harm and a reasonable belief that the otherwise illegal action is the actor’s only means of escape.” (¶16). “Like self-defense and defense of others, it requires that the commission of the criminal act not go on longer than reasonably necessary to escape imminent death or great bodily harm.” (¶17).

Accordingly, Stetzer’s appeal falters due to the trial court’s factual finding that, at the point she saw the squad car and failed to stop, Stetzer knew continued operation was not the “only means” of escape from her violent husband. (¶19). Thus, even if other options–like continuing to drive to the secondary location–were also “reasonable,” that is irrelevant because the law requires Stetzer’s continued operation to have been the “only” option available. (¶20). Moreover, while Stetzer’s concerns about stopping the car may have been “legitimate and serious” they do not prove that continued driving was the “only means” of escaping imminent harm. (¶24).

{ 0 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment