Wisconsin Supreme Court accepts cases on harmless error and search and
March 26, 2012 – The Wisconsin Supreme Court accepted two new
cases. One asks if the trial court properly employed the harmless error
doctrine in denying a defendant’s plea withdrawal motion without a
hearing. The other asks if a defendant’s constitutional right to
be free from unreasonable searches and seizures was violated when police
seized his vehicle and covertly installed a sophisticated real-time GPS
Was harmless error doctrine improperly applied when defendant was
misinformed by counsel?
v. Taylor, the District IV Court of Appeals asks the Supreme Court
to resolve a potential conflict between the holdings in State v. Brown,
2006 WI 100, 293 Wis. 2d 594, 716 N.W.2d 906 and State v. Cross, 2010 WI 70,
326 Wis. 2d 492, 786 N.W.2d 64.
Gerald Taylor was charged with one count of uttering a forgery, as a
repeat offender. Uttering a forgery is a Class H felony, punishable by
up to three years of initial confinement and three years of extended
supervision. The repeater allegation increases the potential initial
confinement to five years.
Taylor pled no contest to the charge, in exchange for the state's
recommendation of probation. At the plea hearing, the trial court
misinformed the defendant that the maximum sentence was six years rather
than eight. The court ultimately sentenced the defendant to three years
of initial confinement and three years of extended supervision. The
defendant filed a post-conviction motion seeking plea withdrawal and
requested an evidentiary hearing.
Taylor argued he was entitled to plea withdrawal because the trial
court misinformed him about the maximum sentence he faced with a
repeater allegation. The circuit court denied the motion without an
evidentiary hearing, concluding, as the state contends, that because the
actual sentence imposed did not exceed the erroneous maximum, any error
Taylor appealed, pointing out the potential conflict between Brown and
District IV says that following either Brown or Cross here could
arguably lead to different results. It notes that as in Brown, this
defendant was told he faced a lesser punishment than the law actually
provided, but the sentence that was imposed did not exceed the amount of
time the trial court had erroneously informed the defendant he was
In contrast, District IV says the Cross court’s discussion seems
to suggest that the due process concerns implicated whenever a defendant
has erroneously been informed that the penalty is less than the actual
maximum might require a hearing to determine whether the defendant was
aware of the actual penalty he faced.
District IV says assuming the harmless error doctrine can properly be
applied to a plea withdrawal motion before holding an evidentiary
hearing, the question then becomes whether the failure to advise the
defendant about a charged penalty enhancer constitutes a Bangert violation and, if so, whether that
error becomes harmless if the trial court does not actually impose an
Did police violate search and seizure rights by covertly installing
v. Brereton examines whether a
defendant’s constitutional right to be free from unreasonable
searches and seizures was violated when police seized his vehicle and
covertly installed a sophisticated real-time GPS tracking device.
There were a string of burglaries in the border areas of Rock and Walworth counties in the fall of 2007. On Oct.
5, 2007, the police stopped a Pontiac that had reportedly been seen in
the area around the time of some of the burglaries. The police later
admitted that the reason for the stop was a pretext because police had
decided to place a GPS monitoring device on the vehicle.
During the stop the police discovered that the two individuals in the
car (one of whom was James G. Brereton) both had
revoked drivers’ license and that the license plates on the car
actually had been issued for a different vehicle. The police transported
Brereton and the other occupant away from the
vehicle for a time, and surreptitiously towed the vehicle to a police
After the vehicle had been moved, the police applied for a warrant to
place a GPS unit in the vehicle.
Based on an affidavit signed by a detective, Walworth County Circuit
Court Judge James L. Carlson granted the application and issued a
warrant/order authorizing the Walworth County Sheriff’s Department
“to place an electronic tracking device” on the Pontiac and
to enter and re-enter the vehicle or any building containing the vehicle
to install, use, or maintain the device or to monitor the location and
movement of the target vehicle.
The warrant/order further authorized the sheriff’s department
“to obtain and use keys to operate and move the vehicle for the
required time to a concealed location and . . . to
open the engine compartments and trunk areas of the vehicles to install
The police entered the interior of the vehicle in order to activate the
hood release lever and placed the advanced GPS-tracking device inside
the engine compartment. After the vehicle was returned to its original
location, the police brought back the two occupants, who were not
advised that the vehicle had ever been moved or the tracking device
Four days after the device had been attached to the Pontiac, the police
determined that the Pontiac had been near the site of a reported
burglary. They later stopped the vehicle and arrested the occupants,
including Brereton, on suspicion of engaging in burglary and found
evidence from a home that had been burgled.
Brereton moved to suppress the evidence obtained as a result of the use
of the GPS tracking device. The circuit court denied the motion.
Brereton subsequently pled guilty to five counts of burglary and later
The Court of Appeals concluded that the warrant had been validly issued
and that the police had probable cause to believe that the Pontiac was
evidence of a crime or contained evidence of a crime when police seized
and “searched” it.
Brereton asserts that the police acted unreasonably in executing the
warrant because the device they used exceeded the scope of the warrant
application and the warrant itself. Brereton emphasizes that the
court’s order stated in several places that it was based upon the
detective's affidavit, which described a GPS device that did not
provide real-time data.