Court considers commissioners' authority

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Monday, December 19, 2011
— In 2008, Rock County Court Commissioner Stephen Meyer signed a search warrant authorizing Beloit police to search a home for evidence of marijuana.

That's not surprising.

Meyer since 2009 has signed more search warrants than any judge or commissioner in the county, according to copies of the warrants on file in the Rock County Clerk of Courts Office. Beloit police request more warrants than any department in the county, and they almost always ask Meyer to sign their warrants.

In addition, police are most often searching for drugs when they request warrants, and the drug they are most often seeking is marijuana, according to the warrants.

So what's so special about this warrant that is so typical to Rock County? The man who was sentenced for growing marijuana as a result of the warrant has appealed. The state Court of Appeals has forwarded the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court's decision could have a big impact on courts around the state, Meyer said.

"The logic of the appellant on this applies to just about anything any court commissioner does," Meyer said.

Specifically, the case questions whether the state statute that gives commissioners the authority to sign warrants is allowed under the state's Constitution, Meyer said. But the case could have a broader effect, he said. Court commissioners, who have judicial authority but are not elected judges and cannot sentence criminals, do a lot of work in circuit courts, Meyer said.

Commissioners officiate at hearings in the early stages of cases, including juvenile, mental health and criminal, Meyer said. Commissioners do a lot of time-consuming tasks, and limiting their roles would cause huge delays in criminal, juvenile and small claims courts, he said.

"It would be a significant change for the whole legal system," Meyer said.

In November 2008, Meyer signed a search warrant authorizing Beloit police to search the home of Douglas M. Williams, 52, of 2173 Shopiere Road, Beloit. Police found marijuana plants and drug paraphernalia, according to the Supreme Court synopsis.

Williams was charged with manufacturing or delivering marijuana, maintaining a drug trafficking place and possessing a controlled substance without a tax stamp. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the state statute giving court commissioners the authority to sign search warrants is unconstitutional—the same argument he used to appeal at the state level. The motion was denied in Rock County Court.

Williams pleaded not guilty to the drug trafficking and possession counts. Those charges were dismissed but read in, according to online court documents.

In April 2010, Judge James Daley sentenced Williams to six months in jail and four years of probation for the manufacturing charge. The sentence has been stayed because of the appeal, according to online court documents.

The case was argued before the Supreme Court on Dec. 1 in Madison. A decision is expected by mid-2012.

Last updated: 7:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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