State v. Stietz

Citation375 Wis.2d 572,2017 WI 58,895 N.W.2d 796
Decision Date13 June 2017
Docket NumberNo. 2014AP2701-CR,2014AP2701-CR
Parties STATE of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. Robert Joseph STIETZ, Defendant-Appellant-Petitioner.
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin

For the plaintiff-respondent there was a brief filed by and an oral argument by Sarah Lynn Shaeffer, assistant attorney general, with whom on the brief was Brad D. Schimel, attorney general.

For the defendant-appellant-petitioner, there were briefs filed by Charles W. Giesen and Jessica J. Giesen and Giesen Law Offices, S. C., Madison, and oral argument by Charles W. Giesen.

SHIRLEY S. ABRAHAMSON, J.1

¶1 This is a review of an unpublished per curiam decision of the court of appeals affirming the judgment of conviction by the circuit court for Lafayette County, James R. Beer, Judge.2 The criminal charges arose out of a confrontation between the defendant and two Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation wardens, Joseph Frost and Nick Webster.

¶2 Following a three-day trial, a jury convicted Robert Stietz, the defendant, of resisting a law enforcement officer, Wis. Stat. § 946.41(1) (2013-14),3 and intentionally pointing a firearm at an officer, § 941.20(1m)(b).4

¶3 On appeal, the court of appeals rejected the defendant's argument that his constitutional right to present a defense was denied by the circuit court's refusal to instruct the jury on self-defense. The court of appeals affirmed the judgment of conviction.

¶4 The dispositive issue presented is whether the circuit court erred when it refused to instruct the jury on self-defense as the defendant requested.5 The dispute in the instant case regarding the self-defense instruction centers on whether the defense of self-defense is supported by sufficient evidence. State v. Head , 2002 WI 99, ¶113, 255 Wis. 2d 194, 648 N.W.2d 413.

¶5 On viewing the record in the light most favorable to the defendant, as we must,6 we conclude, contrary to the State's position, that there was adequate evidence supporting a self-defense instruction in the instant case and that the circuit court erred in refusing the defendant's request for the instruction.

¶6 The evidence was sufficient in the instant case because a reasonable fact-finder could have determined that the defendant reasonably believed that the two men who accosted him with weapons on his land and on land upon which he had an easement were not wardens with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources; that the defendant reasonably believed that the two men were trespassers hunting illegally; that because the two men forcibly wrested his rifle from him and then drew their handguns on him, the defendant reasonably believed that the two men were unlawfully interfering with his person; that the two men pointing handguns at the defendant caused him to fear for his life; and that the defendant pointed his handgun at the two men believing he had to defend himself.7 In sum, the jury could conclude that the defendant threatened to use force as he reasonably believed necessary to prevent or terminate the interference with his person.

¶7 Because we conclude that there was sufficient evidence to support the privilege of self-defense, we conclude that the circuit court erred in failing to instruct the jury on self-defense as requested by the defendant. We further conclude that the circuit court's error affected the defendant's substantial rights; it was not harmless error.

¶8 Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the court of appeals and the judgment of conviction. We remand the cause to the circuit court for a new trial.

¶9 We begin with a discussion of the statutory defense of self-defense and the standard of review. We then examine the record. We determine that there was sufficient evidence to support a jury instruction on self-defense and that the circuit court erred in refusing to give the instruction. Lastly, we assess the error and conclude that the circuit court's error in refusing to instruct the jury on self-defense affected the defendant's substantial rights.

I

¶10 The defendant raised an affirmative defense of self-defense. The privilege of self-defense is set forth in Wis. Stat. § 939.48(1) as follows:

A person is privileged to threaten or intentionally use force against another for the purpose of preventing or terminating what the person reasonably believes to be an unlawful interference with his or her person by such other person. The actor may intentionally use only such force or threat thereof as the actor reasonably believes is necessary to prevent or terminate the interference. The actor may not intentionally use force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm unless the actor reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself. (Emphasis added.)

¶11 The pattern jury instruction for self-defense, Wis JI—Criminal 800,8 instructs the jury on the elements of self-defense as follows (footnotes omitted):

Self-Defense
Self-defense is an issue in this case. The law of self-defense allows the defendant to threaten or intentionally use force against another only if:
the defendant believed that there was an actual or imminent unlawful interference with the defendant's person; and,
the defendant believed that the amount of force the defendant used or threatened to use was necessary to prevent or terminate the interference; and
the defendant's beliefs were reasonable.
Determining Whether Beliefs Were Reasonable
A belief may be reasonable even though mistaken.9 In determining whether the defendant's beliefs were reasonable, the standard is what a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence would have believed in the defendant's position under the circumstances that existed at the time of the alleged offense. The reasonableness of the defendant's beliefs must be determined from the standpoint of the defendant at the time of the defendant's acts and not from the viewpoint of the jury now.

¶12 A circuit court has broad discretion in deciding whether to give a requested jury instruction.

State v. Coleman , 206 Wis. 2d 199, 212, 556 N.W.2d 701 (1996).10 The circuit court must, however, exercise its discretion in order "to fully and fairly inform the jury of the rules of law applicable to the case and to assist the jury in making a reasonable analysis of the evidence." State v. Vick , 104 Wis. 2d 678, 690, 312 N.W.2d 489 (1981) (quoting State v. Dix , 86 Wis. 2d 474, 486, 273 N.W.2d 250 (1979) ).

¶13 A court must determine whether a reasonable construction of the evidence will support the defendant's theory "viewed in the most favorable light it will 'reasonably admit from the standpoint of the accused.' " Head , 255 Wis. 2d 194, ¶113 (quoting State v. Mendoza , 80 Wis. 2d 122, 153, 258 N.W.2d 260 (1977) (quoting Ross v. State , 61 Wis. 2d 160, 172, 211 N.W.2d 827 (1973) )).

¶14 Whether there are sufficient facts to warrant the circuit court's instructing the jury on self-defense is a question of law that this court decides independently of the circuit court and court of appeals, but benefiting from their analyses. Head , 255 Wis. 2d 194, ¶44 (citing State v. Mayhall , 195 Wis. 2d 53, 57, 535 N.W.2d 473 (1995) ); State v. Sartin , 200 Wis. 2d 47, 53, 546 N.W.2d 449 (1996) ; State v. Chew , 2014 WI App 116, ¶7, 358 Wis. 2d 368, 856 N.W.2d 541.

¶15 A jury must be instructed on self-defense when a reasonable jury could find that a prudent person in the position of the defendant under the circumstances existing at the time of the incident could believe that he was exercising the privilege of self-defense. A circuit court may deny a requested self-defense instruction when no reasonable basis exists for the defendant's belief that another person was unlawfully interfering with his person and that the defendant used or threatened the use of such force as he reasonably believed necessary to prevent or terminate the interference. Head , 255 Wis. 2d 194, ¶¶112-113.

¶16 Wisconsin law establishes a "low bar" that the accused must surmount to be entitled to a jury instruction on the privilege of self-defense. State v. Schmidt , 2012 WI App 113, ¶12, 344 Wis. 2d 336, 824 N.W.2d 839. The accused need produce only "some evidence" in support of the privilege of self-defense. Head , 255 Wis. 2d 194, ¶112 ; State v. Peters , 2002 WI App 243, ¶¶21-23, 27-29, nn.4-5, 258 Wis. 2d 148, 653 N.W.2d 300.11

¶17 Evidence satisfies the "some evidence" quantum of evidence even if it is "weak, insufficient, inconsistent, or of doubtful credibility" or "slight."12

¶18 Crucial to applying the "some evidence" standard is that a court is not to weigh the evidence. State v. Mendoza , 80 Wis. 2d 122, 152, 258 N.W.2d 260 (1977). A court does not "look to the totality of the evidence," as that "would require the court to weigh the evidence—accepting one version of facts, rejecting another—and thus invade the province of the jury." Mendoza , 80 Wis. 2d at 153, 258 N.W.2d 260 ; Ross v. State , 61 Wis. 2d 160, 172-73, 211 N.W.2d 827 (1973) ("This test does not call for a weighing of the evidence by the trial judge.").13 Rather, "the question of reasonableness of a person's actions and beliefs, when a claim of self-defense is asserted, is a question peculiarly within the province of the jury." Maichle v. Jonovic , 69 Wis. 2d 622, 630, 230 N.W.2d 789 (1975) (citing Higgins v. Minagham , 76 Wis. 298, 45 N.W. 127 (1890) ).14

¶19 In the instant case, if "some evidence" were offered at trial that the defendant reasonably believed that another person was unlawfully interfering with his person and that he used or threatened to use such force as he reasonably believed necessary to prevent or terminate the interference, "then it is for the jury, not for the [circuit] court or this court, to determine whether to believe [the accused's] version of events." Mendoza , 80 Wis. 2d at 153, 258 N.W.2d 260.

¶20 With the low "some evidence" quantum of evidence...

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  • State v. Johnson
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • 16 d3 Junho d3 2021
    ...under the circumstances existing at the time of the incident could believe that he was exercising the privilege of self-defense." State v. Stietz, 2017 WI 58, ¶15, 375 Wis. 2d 572, 895 N.W.2d 796. We recently described this benchmark as a low bar which only requires the accused to produce s......
  • State v. Johnson
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Wisconsin
    • 8 d3 Julho d3 2020
    ...Wisconsin has a "low bar" that an accused must overcome to be entitled to a jury instruction on the privilege of self-defense. State v. Stietz , 2017 WI 58, ¶16, 375 Wis. 2d 572, 895 N.W.2d 796 (citation omitted). "The accused need produce only ‘some evidence’ in support of the privilege of......
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    • United States State Supreme Court of Wisconsin
    • 19 d4 Abril d4 2018
    ...as well as unfavorable to the petitioner. That is, circuit courts cannot "accept one version of facts, [and] reject another." State v. Stietz, 2017 WI 58, ¶ 18, 375 Wis. 2d 572, 895 N.W.2d 796 (quoting State v. Mendoza, 80 Wis. 2d 122, 152, 258 N.W.2d 260 (1977) ). However, as we recognized......
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    • 16 d3 Junho d3 2021
    ...existing at the time of the incident could believe that he was exercising the privilege ofPage 10 self-defense." State v. Stietz, 2017 WI 58, ¶15, 375 Wis. 2d 572, 895 N.W.2d 796. We recently described this benchmark as a low bar which only requires the accused to produce some evidence to s......
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