Wisconsin prison inmates are using – and many say abusing – an unusual, 168-year-old law to spark often meritless investigations of correctional officers, tying up courts, and creating new headaches for officers, reports the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Under the state’s John Doe law, citizens can force judges to hold hearings by sending them letters alleging a crime has been committed. The judge must take testimony from the person who sent the letter and any witnesses he or she produces – even if it’s immediately clear that the complaint is baseless. Complainants also have the power to subpoena witnesses to testify. “It’s just kind of a perversion of the system,” said Dodge County Circuit Judge Andrew P. Bissonnette. Judges in Dodge County – home to four state penal institutions – get about 30 requests a year for John Doe hearings from inmates.
Judges must review the requests and, if minimal requirements are met, hold a hearing on them. In October, Bissonnette filed prisoner abuse charges against Gabe Umentum, a 24-year-old correctional officer. The inmate, DuJuan Walker, has been convicted on several drug charges over the past 10 years and was convicted of battery while incarcerated in 2006. Umentum’s colleagues have rallied around him, insisting he is innocent and starting a defense fund for him. Bissonnette said the law requires him to issue criminal charges in such cases if the complainant offers a plausible account that a crime has been committed. He said he could not take into account the credibility of witnesses or consider whether the allegations could be proved.