Wisconsin court orders new trial in farmer, warden standoff

Todd Richmond
Associated Press
A proposed bill could restrict the authority of conservation wardens who enter private property, a proposal stemming from the conviction of a farmer who got into a wrestling match with wardens he said he thought were trespassing.

MADISON (AP) — A farmer who got into a wrestling match with conservation wardens that ended in an armed standoff deserves a new trial, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, June 12, 2017.

The high court ruled 4-2 that Robert Steitz's version of events provides enough facts to justify a self-defense argument, and the jury that convicted him should have been instructed on that argument.

According to court documents, Steitz was looking for trespassers on his Lafayette County property as the sun was setting on the last day of the gun deer season in November 2012. He was 64 years old at the time and was carrying a rifle as well as a handgun. He was wearing camoflauge but no blaze orange.

Two state Department of Natural Resources wardens noticed his car in a field and stopped to investigate. The three men encountered one another on Steitz's property.

The wardens were wearing blaze orange jackets with DNR insignia and badges on them, but it was almost dark and Steitz testified he didn't notice their clothing and took them for trespassers. He added that the wardens never clearly identified themselves, although he heard one of them mumble the word "warden."

When Steitz told them he was looking for trespassers and wasn't hunting, the wardens became agitated. He testified that one of them twice asked for his rifle, making him feel as if he was being attacked.

One of the wardens grabbed his coat and reached for the rifle. The three men grappled over the rifle, pointing the barrel every which way. Eventually the wardens wrestled the weapon free. The warden who ended up with the gun fell to the ground and then threw the weapon away.

The wardens then drew their handguns, prompting Steitz to pull his because he thought "my God, he's going to shoot." He said he told the wardens he had a right to protect himself. A standoff ensued. Steitz finally realized the men were wardens when one radioed for help, and he surrendered when sheriff's deputies arrived.

A jury convicted him in 2014 of resisting an officer and pointing a gun at an officer. He was sentenced to a year in prison.

Steitz argued on appeal that Lafayette County Circuit Judge James R. Beer improperly refused to instruct the jury on self-defense, robbing him of his right to present a defense in court.

The Supreme Court agreed with him. Justice Shirley Abrahamson, writing for the majority, said it's clear that a rational jury might have come to a different conclusion if they had been informed about self-defense. A reasonable jury could decide that Steitz truly believed the wardens were trespassers and he feared for his life.

"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," Abrahamson wrote.

Justices Annette Ziegler and Michael Gableman dissented. Writing for both of them, Ziegler said it's a wonder the wardens didn't shoot Steitz and his case isn't about self-defense.

She cited the wardens' testimony at trial that the wardens clearly identified themselves, Steitz was aggressive and they became worried for their safety when Steitz wouldn't hand over his rifle. Steitz initiated the wrestling match by striking one of the wardens in the stomach with the rifle butt, they testified.

The state Department of Justice defended the wardens. A DOJ spokesman didn't immediately reply to an email seeking comment.