Monday, January 23, 2012

OWI Laws: Wisconsin Conviction For Operation Improper

Today's DAD comes to us thanks to the watchful eyes of Wisconsin Attorney Tracey Wood. The case itself was handled by NCDD member Lauren Stuckert of Regent Andrew Mishlove's office. In the case, the jury convicted the driver of OWI. The officer had observed a white van parked in the bar’s parking lot and a man, later identified as the defendant Herbst, seated in the driver’s seat slumped over the steering wheel, with the engine running. Over objection, the prosecutor was allowed to argue to the jury that even touching the steering wheel constituted 'operation'.
On appeal, the court found that the evidence was sufficient to convict, but that the argument denied the defendant a fair trial. Because prosecutor's often attempt to 'bend' the law's definitions into thier favor, asnd then on appeal argue that the errors were harmless, or cured by a written jury instruction, the opinion is incorporated verbatim: 

"We acknowledge that, in general, counsel has wide latitude in closing argument and that it is within the trial court’s sound discretion to control the content of closing arguments. See State v. Lenarchick, 74 Wis. 2d 425, 457, 247 N.W.2d 80 (1976); State v. Cockrell, 2007 WI App 217, ¶41, 306 Wis. 2d 52, 741 N.W.2d 267. However, “[c]ounsel is not permitted to make statements of the law which are of dubious correctness.” State v. Bougneit, 97 Wis. 2d 687, 699-700, 294 N.W.2d 675 (Ct. App. 1980). Where counsel’s inaccurate statements likely affected the jury’s verdict, reversal is appropriate where the trial court erroneously exercised its discretion. See Lenarchick, 74 Wis. 2d at 457-58.  

"We conclude the trial court improperly exercised its discretion by overruling Herbst’s objection to the City’s erroneous statement of the law that manipulation of the controls of a motor vehicle includes placing hands on the steering wheel. If the City meant to say that turning on the ignition of a motor vehicle and manipulating the steering wheel constitutes “operate” within the meaning of Wis. Stat. § 347.63(3)(b), that is a correct statement of the law. But that is not how the City framed its discussion of the meaning of “operate.” The City plainly intended to convey to the jury that “operate” includes turning on the ignition, or, in the alternative, placing hands on the steering wheel. We know of no case law that stands for this proposition.

"Moreover, in overruling defense counsel’s objection to the City’s inaccurate statement of the law regarding what constitutes “operate,” the trial court appeared to defer to the jury’s understanding of whether simply having hands on a steering wheel is “operating” within the meaning of the statute by stating: “This is final—this is argument, counsel. She’s allowed that latitude. I will allow her to do that. These people are intelligent people. They can make that decision. That’s their job.” (Emphasis added.) It is not clear what the court intended by responding to defense counsel’s objection in this manner. However, it is possible that a reasonable juror, listening to the City’s erroneous statement of the law, defense counsel’s objection, and the court’s response, would be confused as to a juror’s proper role in deciding what constitutes “operate” and whether simple placement of hands on a steering wheel is manipulating or activating the controls of a motor vehicle.  

"Usually, errors of the type committed here may be cured by the court reading the appropriate jury instruction. The court did so here. However, the jury instruction explaining the meaning of “operate,” Wis JI-Criminal 2668, is stated in general terms, consistent with its statutory definition. The instruction itself does not parse out the various ways by which a person may manipulate or activate the controls of a motor vehicle as a way of providing concrete examples of what constitutes “operate.” That is a problem here because the jury was left with the erroneous impression that manipulating the controls of a motor vehicle included turning on the ignition, or pressing down the gas pedal, or—significant here—placing one’s hands on a steering wheel. The City appears to concede this error, never addressing at all in their briefing the issues of the closing argument or the jury instruction relating to “operate.”  

Due to the misstatements of law by the prosecutor, coupled with the judge's apparent tacit approval of it by failing to intervene and sustain the objection, a new trial was ordered. 

Editor's Note: Kudos to the defense attorney for timely objecting, thus preserving the error for appeal!

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