By Gretchen Schuldt
The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department must turn over an old internal investigation file involving former Deputy Joel Streicher, who killed Milwaukee activist Ceasar Stinson after running a red light, the State Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
Stinson's "estate asserts that the public has a strong interest in 'knowing when law enforcement officers have a history of violating an individual’s constitutional rights, and how the department handled the investigation of this constitutional violation,' " District I Court of Appeals Judge M. Joseph Donald wrote. "We agree."
Donald was joined in his opinion by Appellate Judges Maxine A. White and William W. Brash III.
The ruling reversed a decision by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David C. Swanson, who said the records should not be released. Swanson, in balancing the public interest in disclosure against the public's interest in keeping the records confidential, said he “doesn’t see a strong public interest in disclosure,” Donald wrote.
The appeals panel said the records need further redactions before they are released.
Streicher, in a Sheriff's Department SUV, ran a red light on Jan. 25, 2020, and hit the vehicle Stinson, 47, was driving.
Streicher was charged that May with homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle, pleaded guilty and, in a sentencing widely derided in the community, ordered by Circuit Judge Michelle Havas to serve six months in jail with work-release privileges and two years' probation.
Havas later ordered Streicher to serve actual jail time after Stinson's widow, Chipo Samvura, complained that Streicher was serving his time at home with ankle bracelet.
A few days after Streicher killed Stinson, who worked as a lobbyist for Milwaukee Public Schools, WISN-TV reporter Nick Bohr sought Streicher’s disciplinary records from the Sheriff's Department. Sheriff's Captain Jason Hodel reviewed the records and decided they should be released. Hodel notified Streicher of the decision, and told Streicher that personal information, such as his home address and email, had been redacted.
Streicher and the Milwaukee Deputy Sheriffs' Association filed a lawsuit to block the release of the records. Afterwards, Samvura and Stinson's estate filed their own open records request and intervened in the TV station's case.
In his ruling, Swanson found that internal affairs files were not exempt from release under the Open Records Law. The court, however blocked the release of the file related to an internal investigation of an improper home search in which Streicher was involved.
"The circuit court began by observing that the internal affairs investigation was 13 years old, 'quite dated at this point,' and focused on 'an improper search of a residence,' which took place after police had seized 44 pounds of marijuana from a car," Donald said. "The court indicated that it was concerned about the references in the file related to the prosecutor’s case planning and that disclosing the file might 'endanger individuals who were involved in [the drug] investigation either as targets or as informers or both.' Thus, the court found that 'the balancing test weighs in favor of an injunction.' ”
When the Stinson estate representative noted that names could be redacted from the report, Swanson said the names had been redacted from the file he reviewed, but it still was clear who was discussed.
"The court stated that 'very significant' redactions would need to be made and 'they haven’t been made at this point,' ” Donald said. "The court also reiterated that its other concern was the references to the prosecutor’s case planning, which would also need to be redacted."
In reversing Swanson, the appeals panel said the public had a strong interest in incidents where public officials were derelict in their duty.
"Thus, here, where the police improperly entered a person’s home in the course of their investigation, the public has a compelling interest in accessing the documents relevant to the misconduct and the extent to which it was investigated," Donald wrote.
Further redactions are needed before the report is released, he wrote, but "this does not justify the denial of the release of the entire file."
"Streicher and MDSA point to the circuit court’s finding that Streicher’s role in the improper search was 'minor,' ” Donald wrote. "However, this should not be a shield by which the government can prevent disclosure....The public has a strong interest in being informed about its public officials and whether those officials have engaged in misconduct....These interests cannot be outweighed simply by the fact that an official played a minor role in an improper search."
Help WJI advocate for justice in Wisconsin