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Discovery Case Analysis

The decision effectively guts sec. 971.23(7m)(a) of its teeth, at least when it is the State that fails to comply with discovery requirements.

Glaringly absent from the court’s discussion is any attempt to distinguish a case with nearly identical facts, albeit in a slightly different procedural context, Village of Menomonee Falls v. Meyer, 229 Wis.2d 811, 601 N.W.2d 666 (Ct.App.1999).

In that case, Meyer was charged in municipal court with OWI, and operating with a prohibited alcohol concentration. Despite repeated efforts to obtain the police reports, the village failed to produce the report until immediately before trial. Id., 229 Wis.2d at 813.

Meyer moved to prohibit use of the police report at trial, and the municipal court granted the motion. The Village stated that it was unable to proceed without the report. On motion from Meyer, the court dismissed the charges against him. Id.

The Village then requested a new trial before the circuit court pursuant to sec. 800.14(4). Meyer moved to dismiss, arguing that the Village could not request a new trial before the circuit court, when the merits of the case had not been determined before the municipal court. Id.

The court agreed with the village, however, and Meyer was convicted.

The court of appeals reversed. Section 800.14(4) provides: “Upon request of either party … the circuit court shall order that a new trial be held in circuit court. The new trial shall be conducted by the court without a jury unless the appellant requests a jury trial….”

The court first found the statute ambiguous, reasoning, “The Village contends that sec. 800.14(4), stats., permits either party to request a new trial if the municipal court has addressed and disposed of the case. In contrast, Meyer argues that a municipal court trial that includes a full litigation of the merits of the parties’ issues must occur before either party may appeal to the circuit court for a new trial. Both parties present reasonable interpretations of this statute. Because sec. 800.14(4) is capable of more than one reasonable interpretation, we conclude that it is ambiguous.” Id., at 814-815.

The court resolved the ambiguity in favor of Meyer, reasoning, “The Village’s motivation for requesting a new trial before the circuit court is readily apparent. The charges against Meyer were dismissed in the municipal court because after failing to produce the police report through discovery and then not being able to present it as evidence, the Village was unprepared to proceed with the trial. Because of the Village’s error, it was unable to get a conviction against Meyer. With the new circuit court trial, the Village started the case with a clean slate. It now had the opportunity to use the police report as evidence. Such leaping from an adverse municipal court determination in search of a more favorable outcome in the circuit court is contrary to the legislature’s intent for the statute — to reduce the number of new trial requests to the circuit court from municipal ordinance violations. Meyer, who was fully prepared with his case at the time of the municipal court trial, succeeded before the municipal court in getting the charges against him dismissed. The result sought by the Village is unfair to those who, after receiving a judicial determination of their case by the municipal court, believe that their case has been resolved.” Id., at 815-816.

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Admittedly, different statutes are involved, and different purposes served by the two statutes. The purpose of sec. 800.14(4) is to limit the number of appeals of municipal court decisions to the circuit court. The purpose of sec. 971.23(7m)(a) is to ensure that parties timely comply with discovery requests.

Nevertheless, the court’s reasoning in Meyer can be easily paraphrased, including substituting, “to ensure that parties timely comply with discovery requests,” for, “to reduce the number of new trial requests…,” and the reasoning would be equally compelling.

Certainly, there are other considerations that apply, and that may make the reasoning in Meyer distinguishable when applying the discovery abuse statute.

Indeed, the court listed some of those considerations in its equal protection analysis. Nevertheless, absent some acknowledgement of the reasoning in Meyer, the analysis of the statutory issue cannot be deemed to have been given the full consideration it is due.

– David Ziemer

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David Ziemer can be reached by email.

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