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High court grills lawyers over property rights in DNR standoff lawsuit

The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Wednesday grilled lawyers in the case of a Lafayette County man who was convicted of resisting arrest and pointing a gun at a state Department of Nature Resources warden.

The case before the justices stems from a standoff that Robert Stietz, a 64-year-old beef farmer, had with two DNR wardens on the afternoon of Nov. 25, 2012, the last day of the deer-hunting season. At the time of the confrontation, Steitz had been walking along his property looking for trespassers.

He was eventually charged with six criminal offenses, including two counts of pointing a firearm at a law-enforcement officer. A jury acquitted Stietz of four of the six charges and found him guilty of pointing a firearm at law-enforcement officials and resisting or obstructing an officer.

At issue in the case is whether Stietz should have been allowed to present an argument for self-defense at trial and whether the jury should have been instructed on self-defense and trespassing law.

Charles Geisen, of Geisen Law Offices in Madison, argued on Stietz’s behalf on Wednesday before the state Supreme Court. Assistant Attorney General Sara Shaeffer appeared on behalf of the state.

Justice Annette Ziegler asked Geisen whether there were any legal limits restricting when DNR wardens could enter private property.

“So when I’m on private property, I can do whatever I want?” she asked. “If I decide as a landowner to hunt on my property after hours, there’s nothing DNR can do?”

Justice Michael Gableman asked Geisen how the so-called open-fields doctrine applies in Stietz’s case. This doctrine allows law enforcement to search the exterior of a property without the use of a warrant.

Justice Dan Kelly and Justice Rebecca Bradley pressed Shaeffer on matters related to property rights.

“Are you saying that government agents have the authority to enter private property in rural areas simply because they are more open than a city?” Bradley asked. “So private property owners in rural areas have less rights than owners of private property in a city?

Kelly pressed Shaeffer with questions concerning trespassing and standing. One of the state’s arguments is that Stietz had no grounds for mounting a defense because his altercation with the wardens, rather than happening on his own property, had actually occurred on an easement on his neighbor’s property.

“You said that he could not make the argument for standing. Why?“ Kelly said. “He’s not suing for damages. … Isn’t the question whether the wardens had the authority to be there?”

Chief Justice Pat Roggensack also pressed Shaeffer on the matter, asking what authority the two wardens had to disarm Stietz and grab his gun. Roggensack said it seemed that the wardens had escalated the situation.

“They disarmed him and did it forcefully,” she said. “One of the officers ended up on (Steitz’s) back. That seems pretty aggressive to me.”

About Erika Strebel, [email protected]

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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