By BRYNA GODAR
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Dodge County District Attorney Kurt Klomberg was delivering his closing argument in the prosecution of a man accused of spitting on prison guards when he heard a crumpling noise behind him. Moments later, a wad of paper hit his shoulder — filled with the inmate’s saliva.
Klomberg recalled the incident last year as a reason to support a GOP proposal that would make it a felony for anyone to throw or expel bodily fluids at prosecutors, punishable by up to 3-½ years in prison and $10,000 in fines.
“The real concern is not just the gross nature of this, but communicable disease,” Klomberg said. “When I’m handling these cases, I always kind of have to keep one eye on the defendant, and that’s taking my focus away from the case at hand.”
It’s already a felony for such an attack on police, prison guards, firefighters and first responders such as emergency medical technicians and ambulance drivers. Spitting at a prosecutor is currently only punishable as disorderly conduct, which carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail.
“Maybe somebody will think twice before they do this if they know they’re going to get charged with a felony versus a disorderly conduct,” said bill author Rep. Todd Novak, R-Dodgeville.
Democrats voted against the measure in the Assembly Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, arguing the enhanced penalty won’t deter the behavior. The bill passed the committee on party lines and is headed to the Assembly floor Tuesday.
Supporters of the change don’t have hard data on how often such attacks occur. Novak said his conversations with prosecutors suggest it’s rising.
Klomberg detailed another instance from 2007, in which an inmate covered his body in his own feces prior to a hearing. The guards warned that the inmate was likely to spit feces in court if not placed in a spit mask.
“The big issue for me was these prison inmates that are engaging in this behavior with fairly regular frequency,” Klomberg said.
Rep. Evan Goyke, D-Milwaukee, said he doesn’t think the increased penalty will stop the behavior. He said the people doing it are often suffering from mental illness or are already being prosecuted for the same behavior in prison. He said the better solution would be to address the mental illness directly.
“The remedy’s that being sought, further incarceration, is only going to exacerbate the whole problem,” Goyke said.
Novak said he understands Democrats’ concerns, but he thinks prosecutors will use the felony charge sparingly.
“I don’t see prosecutors charging everybody who spits at them with a felony, but it’s a tool for them if they need to use it,” Novak said.