Wisconsin Supreme Court dismisses disciplinary charges against criminal prosecutor who failed to provide defense with unsworn note containing admission of another person

Hello and welcome to this Ethics Alert blog which will discuss the recent opinion of the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirming the dismissal of disciplinary charges against a lawyer who was prosecuting the driver of a motor vehicle for possession of marijuana and did not provide an unsworn note written by a passenger in the vehicle admitting that he possessed the marijuana.  The case is In the Matter of Sharon A.Riek, Case No. 2011AP1049-D, 2013 WI 81 (Supreme Court of Wisconsin,July 23, 2013).  The opinion is online here: http://www.wicourts.gov/sc/opinion/DisplayDocument.html?content=html&seqNo=9975

According to the opinion, the criminal case involved a traffic stop and the arrest of the driver for possession of marijuana. The driver was on supervision for a prior cocaine possession and was criminally prosecuted for possessing the marijuana.  A passenger in the vehicle (Isaiah Simpson) subsequently told law enforcement and prosecutors that the marijuana was his.  The defense attorney was aware of Simpson’s confession and also had Simpson on his trial witness list; however, the prosecutor did not provide a copy of an unsworn note with his admission to the defense until four days before trial.  After conducting an investigation, the prosecutor moved to dismiss the criminal charge and the charge was subsequently dismissed.

The opinion affirmed the dismissal of the disciplinary charges brought against the prosecutor for failing to disclose the note/admission and rejected the Wisconsin Office of Lawyer Regulation (OLR)’s contention that a “prosecutor’s ethical duty of disclosure (under the Wisconsin professional conduct rules) is broader than the constitutional requirements identified in Brady” and stated that “(t)he record is devoid of evidence that (the prosecutor)’s alleged delay in producing the Simpson Note and disclosing the fact of Simpson’s discussion with (another prosecutor) was intentional or done for any strategic purpose.  Mindful of the voluminous caseloads managed by most prosecutors, we are unwilling to rule that (the prosecutor)’s disclosure of essentially duplicative information four days in advance of an apparently routine marijuana possession case ran afoul of her ethical and procedural obligations as a prosecutor.”

“We note, moreover, that even where a prosecutor does fail to disclose exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady, a single inadvertent failure does not necessarily constitute an ethical violation.  Negligence and ethical misconduct are not necessarily synonymous.  Most courts and official ABA policy agree that a single instance of “ordinary negligence” may trigger other adverse consequences and possible sanctions but does not usually constitute a disciplinary violation warranting public discipline.”  The opinion then upheld the dismissal of the disciplinary charges.

Bottom line:  This is most recent of multiple state disciplinary opinions this year which address potential violations of state Bar Rules by a prosecutor.  This opinion dismissed the charges against a criminal prosecutor in Wisconsin stating that a “single instance of ‘ordinary negligence’ does not usually constitute a disciplinary violation warranting public discipline.”  This result appears to be fair under the circumstances since the failure to produce the unsworn note appears to have been unintentional and the defense attorney already knew about the admission/exculpatory statement.  As a former criminal prosecutor and Florida Bar prosecutor and now defense attorney, I am somewhat surprised that the Wisconsin disciplinary agency would choose to appeal the dismissal, and I do not necessarily agree with it.

Disclaimer:  this e-mail does not contain any legal advice and the comments herein should not be relied upon by anyone who reads it.

Joseph A. Corsmeier, Esquire

Law Office of Joseph A. Corsmeier, P.A.

2454 McMullen Booth Road, Suite 431

Clearwater, Florida 33759

Office (727) 799-1688

Fax     (727) 799-1670



About jcorsmeier

Joseph A. Corsmeier is an “AV” rated attorney practicing in Clearwater, Florida. He concentrates his practice primarily in the areas of defense of attorney disciplinary matters before The Florida Bar, attorney admission matters before the Florida Board of Bar Examiners, and professional license and disciplinary matters before the Boards of the State of Florida. He provides expert analysis and opinion on conflict of interest and other attorney disqualification and legal malpractice issues and he testified as an expert in the Florida courts. He served as an Assistant State Attorney in the Sixth Judicial Circuit from 1986 to 1990 where he prosecuted felonies exclusively from June 1987, and as Bar Counsel for The Florida Bar’s Department of Lawyer Regulation from 1990 to 1998. He also practices in the areas of estate planning and Medicaid qualification, workers’ compensation, and labor law. Mr. Corsmeier is the author of numerous articles for various bar publications, has spoken at numerous local and statewide seminars on various topics, including ethics and professionalism, and was an instructor of legal ethics for paralegals at Rollins College until the Tampa campus closed. He received his undergraduate degree from Florida State University and his J.D. from Mercer University. He is admitted to practice in all Florida Courts, the Supreme Court of the United States, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, and the Middle District of Florida. He is a member of The Florida Bar, American Bar Association, the Association of Professional Responsibility Lawyers, and the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Bar Associations.
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