Racine County Circuit Judge Michael J. Piontek knows now the he should make sure his private research is accurate before he uses it to sanctimoniously and publicly cudgel a defendant in open court.
Piontek’s reliance on his own shoddy research when sentencing defendant Patricia A. Enriquez means she is entitled to be resentenced, a Court of Appeals panel ruled.
By a different judge.
The District 2 appeals panel noted in a footnote that the judicial conduct code says “ ‘[a] judge may not initiate, permit, engage in or consider ex parte communications concerning a pending or impending action or proceeding’ except under certain circumstances that do not apply here.”
Piontek was relying on the unverified information when he called Enriquez “probably the biggest liar” that had ever come before him, and then refused to let her respond, according to the opinion.
“I don’t want any comment from you anymore,” he said.
Enriquez surely had her problems. She was a nurse who provided non-narcotic drugs to a police informant and, as a result, pleaded guilty to two counts of delivering controlled substances.
But Enriquez also had an 18-year nursing career, a master’s degree, had served four years in the Army Reserve, and had no prior criminal convictions. She suffered from diabetes and multiple sclerosis, and had endured two neck fractures, one as a girl and one more recently, wrote Appeals Judge Lisa S. Neubauer for the panel.
“I know that I used poor judgment,” Enriquez told Piontek during her sentencing hearing. “And I no longer will be in nursing. I am retiring. And for this I am very regretful and very remorseful.”
Piontek then presented the results of his internet detective work, which he claimed “showed that Enriquez’s license to practice nursing in Texas had been revoked in 2000 because she had misappropriated morphine from the hospital where she had worked and that she had never possessed a license in Illinois,” Neubauer wrote.
Piontek lit into Enriquez, according to the July Appeals Court decision.
“You know, you’re taking morphine, either not giving it to the patients, administrating it to yourself, selling it. I don’t know what exactly it is. But I do know that it’s true that your license was revoked because you took Morphine that was destined for patients or destined for discarding. And you used it or sold it or a combination of both.”
“If you’re going to lie to the Court and present patently false information to me in order for me to fashion a sentence, and I was born but it wasn’t yesterday, and I find out about it, there is a—there is a consequence to that…. …. Your character is, I would classify as miserable concerning honesty…. The aggravating circumstances are your dishonesty to the Court, to the Court’s agencies including the author of the presentence report.
Except that Enriquez’s license wasn’t revoked in Texas and she was a licensed nurse in Illinois for 28 years. She submitted information from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation verifying her licensure in that state and submitted documentation from the Texas Board of Nursing showing that she had voluntarily surrendered her nursing license. Also included was a document charging her with seventeen counts of violating Texas law, but she said there was nothing showing she sold morphine. (Enriquez claimed that she did not correctly document some morphine withdrawals, but the records also indicated she tested positive for the drug, according to the decision.)|
Piontek, relying in part on the inaccurate information he dug up on his own, hammered her with a sentence of five years behind bars and six years of extended supervision. The prosecution had sought a much lighter sentence -- 18 months in prison and 18 months extended supervision on one of the count and three years probation on the other count.
As Neubauer noted in her footnote, comments in Wisconsin’s Supreme Court Rules “state that “[a] judge must not independently investigate facts in a case and must consider only the evidence presented. As our supreme court has said, “[a] judge must not go out and gather evidence in a pending case. To do so is error…. Indeed, one of the many problems with an independent investigation is the potential for error and, as was the case here, the inability of the parties to factually and legally address the judge’s information other than in an ad hoc manner, leading to further error.”
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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