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  • June 26, 2023

    Circuit Court’s Ambiguous Imposition of Probation Condition Warrants Remand

    A circuit court must clarify whether an order imposing a probation condition is consistent with state law that authorizes a circuit court to modify such a condition, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has held.

    Jeff M. Brown

    A Probation Violation Court Hearing Form With A Black Ballpoint Pen Lying Across It

    June 26, 2023 – A circuit court must clarify whether an order imposing a probation condition is consistent with state law that authorizes a circuit court to modify such a condition, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has held in State v. Williams-Holmes, 2023 WI 49 (June 20, 2023).

    Justice Brian Hagedorn wrote the majority opinion, joined by Justice Ann Walsh Bradley, Justice Rebecca Dallet, and Justice Jill Karofsky. Chief Justice Ziegler dissented, joined by Justice Patience Roggensack and Justice Rebecca Bradley.

    Probation, Prison on Battery Charges

    In the spring of 2019, Junior Williams-Holmes assaulted his girlfriend. Williams-Holmes was on probation at the time.

    Jeff M. Brown Jeff M. Brown , Willamette Univ. School of Law 1997, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6126.

    The Kenosha County District Attorney filed charges against Williams-Holmes, who pled guilty to two counts of battery, one count of false imprisonment, and one count of bail jumping.

    The Kenosha County Circuit Court imposed upon Williams-Holmes consecutive sentences , each consisting of one year of initial confinement and one year of extended supervision, on the battery charges.

    The circuit court also ordered that Williams-Holmes serve three years of probation, consecutive to the battery charges. On the bail jumping and false imprisonment charges, the court withheld sentence.

    Condition about Living Conditions

    The circuit court imposed a condition on both the extended supervision and probation periods: that Williams-Holmes not live with any women or unrelated children without first obtaining permission from the court.

    Williams-Holmes filed for post-conviction relief. He asked the circuit court to amend the judgement of conviction to specify that permission to live with any women or unrelated children come from the Department of Corrections (DOC).

    The circuit court denied the motion. In denying the motion, the circuit court judge said he’d imposed the condition in part because of past actions by DOC.

    To make his point, the circuit court judged attached to his order an email exchange between a probation and parole agent and the circuit court from 2019.

    In the email, the agent asked the court whether the court would allow a defendant, subject to a condition similar to the one the court had imposed on Williams-Holmes, to live with his girlfriend, her young son, and several other family members.

    The circuit court judge told the agent that he wouldn’t approve the placement because of the defendant’s history of violent behavior and drug use.

    Williams-Holmes appealed.

    The Wisconsin Court of Appeals held that the law allowed the circuit court to administer the condition imposed upon Williams-Holmes through the process, proscribed by statute, for modifying a person’s probation, and affirmed the circuit court’s denial of the post-conviction motion.

    The state appealed.

    Imposition vs. Administration of Conditions

    Justice Hagedorn began his opinion for the majority by explaining that while circuit courts have broad discretion to impose conditions on defendants’ extended supervision and probation, the law grants control of the defendant and the administration of the terms of probation to DOC.

    Hagedorn pointed out that under Wis. Stat. section 301.03(3), DOC is obligated to “administer” a defendant’s extended supervision and probation.

    But he explained that under sections 302.113(7m)(a) and 973.09(3)(a), a circuit court retains the authority to modify conditions imposed upon a defendant’s extended supervision and probation, through a formal process that involves a petition and order and requires the court to modify said conditions only “for cause.”

    Justice Hagedorn pointed out that in its decision, the court of appeals harmonized the statues governing DOC’s control over defendants and a circuit court’s ability to modify conditions of extended supervision and probation.

    In doing so, the court of appeals held that the only way for Williams-Holmes to obtain the court’s permission to live with an unrelated woman or children was through the process governed by sections 302.113(7m)(a) and 973.09(3)(a).

    Rulings Below Seem to Conflict

    However, Justice Hagedorn wrote, “the record strongly suggests that the circuit court intended to administer this condition of supervision itself, and not leave future permission to a statutorily authorized modification.”

    For instance, Hagedorn wrote, “the circuit court appears to have envisaged Williams-Holmes (or the probation or parole agent) communicating with the court directly and as needed to obtain the necessary approval for him to live with a woman or an unrelated child.”

    The court of appeals holding seemed to conflict with the circuit court’s reasoning, Justice Hagedorn concluded.

    Therefore, he reasoned, it was necessary to reverse and remand the case to the circuit court, to give that court a chance to either clarify how the condition it imposed complied with the relevant law or modify its order.

    Dissent: Majority Misreads Circuit Court Order

    In her dissent, Chief Justice Ziegler argued that the supreme court should have simply affirmed the court of appeals decision.

    Ziegler pointed out that the circuit court, in its order denying Williams-Holmes motion for post-conviction relief, cited section 973.09(3)(a) and mentioned the statutory process for modifying extended supervision and probation conditions.

    “This shows that the circuit court intended for ‘court permission’ to be effectuated through that statutory process,” Chief Justice Ziegler wrote. “Accordingly, as the court of appeals concluded, the circuit court’s condition is lawful, and we should affirm the court of appeals’ decision.”

    The circuit court’s order, Ziegler wrote, “expressly references the circuit court’s ability to modify conditions by order.”

    And the majority’s conclusion that the circuit court appeared to intend to retain the ability to modify the conditions outside the statutory modification process, Chief Justice Ziegler reasoned, appeared to be based – erroneously, she argued – on the 2019 email exchange with the parole or probation agent.

    “This email does not serve as an example of the procedure for obtaining ‘court permission’ that the circuit court envisioned,” Ziegler wrote. “Quite to the contrary, the circuit court disapproved of nearly every aspect of the email.”

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    WisBar Court Review, published by the State Bar of Wisconsin, includes summaries and analysis of decisions from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, as well as other court developments. To contribute to this blog, contact Joe Forward.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

    © 2024 State Bar of Wisconsin, P.O. Box 7158, Madison, WI 53707-7158.

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