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SCOW: Defendant entitled to self-defense instruction

State v. Robert Joseph Stietz, 2017 WI 58, 6/13/17, reversing a per curiam decision of the court of appeals; case activity (including briefs)

This case breaks no new legal ground, but simply reaffirms some long-standing rules governing when a trial judge should instruct a jury on self-defense: The defendant has only to meet the “low bar” of producing “some evidence” to support the defense; the evidence supporting the instruction should be viewed in the light most favorable to the defendant; and that the trial judge shouldn’t weigh the credibility of the evidence because that’s the job of the jury. (¶¶12-23). Under the specific facts of this case, the trial judge erred in not giving Stietz a self-defense instruction. (¶¶24-60).

After dusk on the last day of gun deer season a couple of DNR wardens were out looking for people still hunting. It was almost completely dark when the wardens heard someone coming. It was Stietz, who was looking for trespassers hunting on his property without permission. The wardens focus their flashlights on Stietz, who is carrying a deer rifle. Stietz says the wardens don’t identify themselves, so he thinks they might be trespassers, as they are on his land. After some confusing exchanges about hunting the wardens end up forcibly disarming Stietz. But all three men have handguns, which are soon drawn and, as the majority opinion puts it, perhaps somewhat wryly, “[t]here they were, three men with handguns trained on each other.” (¶47). The wardens then radioed for sheriff’s deputies, who arrived and defused the stand-off.

Stietz was charged with first degree recklessly endangering safety, negligent handling of a weapon, pointing a firearm, and resisting. At trial he asked for a self-defense instruction, which the circuit court denied, evidently because Stietz’s story was not always consistent and was contradicted by other evidence. Stietz was nonetheless acquitted of the reckless endangerment and negligent handling charges, but convicted of obstruction and pointing a firearm. As already noted, applying the well-established rules about when a defendant is entitled to a self-defense instruction, four justices hold the circuit court should’ve given the instruction and that the error wasn’t harmless. The majority opinion does nothing to develop the law and consists primarily of a recitation of the facts viewed in Stietz’s favor and a rather cursory harmless error analysis (and a garbled one, too, in that it seems to imply the defendant must prove the error wasn’t harmless). (¶¶61-65).

A concurrence (R.G. Bradley joined by Kelly and, in part, by Roggensack) opines that the circuit court also erred in refusing to instruct the jury that the wardens were trespassers, rejecting the state’s proffered justifications for the wardens’ presence on private property. (¶¶72-97). Only two justices join the concurrence’s critique of the “open fields” doctrine as justification for the wardens to be on private property to look for and seize illegal hunters (¶¶91-94), but anyone litigating a warrantless search or, especially, seizure on private property might want to review the concurrence for ammunition in arguing the search or seizure was unlawful.

Finally, a dissent (Ziegler and Gableman) conclude Stietz wasn’t entitled to a self-defense instruction on the two charges for which he was found guilty because they related to his actions after he himself admitted he came to understand the two men he was dealing with weren’t trespassers, but wardens. (¶¶98-159).

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