By Gretchen Schuldt
A court cannot refuse the return of property based on unproven allegations in a criminal complaint that never went to trial and that the defendant never had a chance to contest, the state Court of Appeals recently ruled.
“The state had a fair opportunity to introduce evidence that (John Dean) Pleuss used the shotgun in the commission of a crime during the initial proceedings but failed to do so,” Appellate Judge Brian W. Blanchard wrote for the three-member District IV Court of Appeals panel. He was joined in his decision by JoAnne F. Kloppenburg and Michael R. Fitzpatrick.
Before Pleuss, now 78, can get his gun back, however, he must return to Monroe County Circuit Court and demonstrate that his failure to file a motion for the return of property by the statutory deadline was excusable neglect. State law requires filing within 120 days of a defendant’s initial appearance; Pleuss filed his motion 127 days after his initial appearance, according to a brief filed by Assistant State Attorney General Donald V. Latorraca opposing the return.
Pleuss allegedly pointed a shotgun at a deputy on Oct. 1, 2020, and the deputy pushed the barrel away, according to the state's brief. As the two talked, Pleuss denied pointing it at the deputy. Pleuss also refused to show the deputy his driver’s license, instead displaying his concealed carry permit, the brief said.
Pleuss was arrested later that day and charged with intentionally pointing a firearm at or towards a law enforcement officer, disorderly conduct, and operating a vehicle without carrying or displaying a license. Pleuss had an initial appearance, according to a defense brief filed by attorney Steven L. Miller, but there were no other court proceedings before the charges were dismissed.
The state said the charges were dismissed in exchange for an apology from Pleuss and his participation in a gun safety course.
When Pleuss sought the return of the shotgun, the prosecutor told Circuit Judge Mark L. Goodman that the state met its burden of establishing that the shotgun was contraband.
“I think the state has done that by the filing of the criminal complaint that demonstrates probable cause of the crimes therein,” the prosecutor said.
Pleuss objected to the state’s total reliance on the complaint, arguing that the state did not meet its “‘burden…in any way, shape, or form,’” Blanchard wrote.
Goodman ruled that Pleuss missed the deadline for seeking return of the gun and that the state had proven, based on the complaint, that the shotgun was used in a crime.
The state, on appeal, said the allegations in the complaint were “substantive evidence” and were admissible hearsay in court. The panel, though, found that the complaint did not meet the standard of trustworthiness required for admissible hearsay as a public record.
"While it is true that a police report standing alone may be admissible evidence ... the State here unambiguously relied exclusively on the factual allegations in the criminal complaint as purported evidence and did not call a witness to offer the police report as piece of evidence," Blanchard wrote.
"The factual allegations in criminal complaints have no evidentiary value unless the applicant has admitted to them or at least failed to dispute them," he said.
Pleuss never admitted in any form that the charges against him were true, Blanchard said.
“In the circuit court Pleuss consistently objected to the state’s use of the allegations in the complaint as evidence,” he said.
The state, he said, “completely failed to meet its burden of proof.”
In returning the state’s missed-deadline argument to Circuit Court, the panel ruled that a flat declaration that the deadline was mandatory could negatively affect others, such as victims, who might have property seized during an investigation and might not even learn that their property is in law enforcement custody until after the 120 days have passed.
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