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GOP lawmakers consider John Doe law changes

Gov. Scott Walker speaks at his campaign party in West Allis on Nov. 4. Republican lawmakers are considering changes to the state's "John Doe" law after two lengthy investigations into Walker's campaign. (AP File Photo/Morry Gash)

Republican lawmakers are considering changes to the state’s “John Doe” law after two lengthy investigations into Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign. (AP File Photo/Morry Gash)

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Republican lawmakers are considering changes to Wisconsin’s “John Doe” law after two lengthy investigations into Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign.

State Rep. David Craig, a Republican from the town of Vernon, is leading the effort to write a bill that he says would provide “additional layers of judicial review so we don’t have prosecutions run amok.” Craig said he worries about whether the process adequately protects citizens’ rights to due process, privacy and free speech and against unreasonable searches and seizures, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Wisconsin’s law lays out an often-secretive process in which a prosecutor, supervised by a judge, investigates whether a crime has been committed and if so, by whom — thus the John Doe name.

Prosecutors say John Doe investigations are a valuable mechanism for collecting evidence and compelling testimony when witnesses are reluctant or suspects uncertain. But Anthony Cotton, president-elect of the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said a John Doe is “an unchecked process that could be easily manipulated by any prosecutor — inadvertently or intentionally.”

During a John Doe, a prosecutor can subpoena witnesses who are forced to testify or face contempt of court charges. If probable cause is found that a crime was committed, the prosecutor can then issue charges.

Cotton said as a criminal defense attorney, he fears that John Does give too much power to police and prosecutors. During a normal investigation, a police officer can interview people but they’re not required to answer questions unless criminal charges are filed and they are subpoenaed to testify, he said.

“It gives them (police and prosecutors) an enhanced level of power that they don’t have if they just send a cop out to do an interview,” Cotton said. “Prosecutors have the ability to compel somebody to physically come to court.”

In high-profile cases, the process often is shielded from the public. If no charges are filed, judges in such cases can order the process remain secret in perpetuity and that witnesses and targets are prohibited from discussing the proceedings. If charges are filed, a judge can order all evidence and testimony not directly related to the charges be sealed.

The idea behind secrecy is to protect the reputations of those under investigation not charged with a crime. But both investigations targeting Walker’s campaign and his associates have been the subject of leaks, despite court-ordered secrecy.

Craig said he also is exploring whether there should be limits to the duration and scope of John Does. The investigation targeting Walker’s campaign and associates when he was the executive of Milwaukee County was launched by Democratic Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm in 2010 and did not conclude until 2013.

That probe, prompted by a complaint from Walker’s then-chief of staff that veterans’ funds appeared to be missing, expanded into a wide-ranging investigation that ensnared six aides and associates of Walker’s for crimes ranging from theft, misconduct in public office and illegal campaign contributions to contributing to the delinquency of a child. The governor was not charged.

A second probe, launched by Chisholm in 2012 and joined by four other district attorneys, including two Republicans, is ongoing. Its fate is in the hands of the Wisconsin Supreme Court after targets of the probe, including Walker, have filed court challenges to its legality.

Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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