Some civil and criminal cases rely on indistinguishable facts. However, a recent Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision – Wisconsin v. Scott, et. al., 2017AP1345 – demonstrated that the parties need not make indistinguishable arguments in each case.
In 2016, police seized drugs, money and vehicles pursuant to a search warrant for the Scotts’ property. However, it was determined that there was not sufficient probable cause to support the search warrant. The evidence from the search was therefore suppressed, and the State voluntarily dismissed the criminal charges against the Scotts.
Despite dismissal of the criminal charges, the State proceeded with the civil forfeiture action, seeking retention of the seized cash and vehicles. See Wis. Stat. § 961.55. The Scotts moved for summary judgment, arguing that, under One 1958 Plymouth Sedan v. Pennsylvania, 380 U.S. 693 (1965), the exclusionary rule extends to this civil forfeiture action because it is of a “quasi-criminal nature”. The State argued that Plymouth Sedan should not apply to this action.
The State also sought an evidentiary hearing on an argument not made in the criminal case: whether the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule would permit introduction of the cash and vehicles. The State relied on State v. Eason, where the supreme court found that the exclusionary rule might not apply when police objectively and reasonably rely on a search warrant, because then the rule would not fulfill its purpose (deterring unreasonable police actions). 2001 WI 98, ¶ 27, 245 Wis. 2d 206, 629 N.W.2d 625. The Scotts did not rebut the merits of the good-faith exception, but instead argued the State should be foreclosed from making this argument in the civil proceeding because it had not been raised in the criminal case.
The Circuit Court granted summary judgment to the Scotts. It agreed that, with the search evidence suppressed under Plymouth Sedan, the State could not prove criminal conduct, and the civil forfeiture action could not proceed.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals, District IV reversed. It agreed that Plymouth Sedan applied, so the exclusionary rule would typically end this sort of civil forfeiture action based on a lack of proof of criminal conduct. However, the court held that the State should have been allowed to contest the applicability of Plymouth Sedan with the good-faith exception argument. The Court of Appeals asserted that the State deserved this opportunity even if it had not argued for the exception at the accompanying criminal proceedings.
The Court of Appeals reached this decision for two reasons. First, the Scotts did not argue against the good-faith exception on appeal; instead, they simply repeated that the State had not raised this argument in the criminal cases. The Court of Appeals considered this a concession by the Scotts that the State should have the opportunity to make this argument. Further, the Circuit Court had not addressed either the applicability or merit of this argument, so the Court of Appeals lacked the evidence to determine either. As a result, the Court of Appeals remanded for further proceedings on the good-faith exception.
The State still may not end up with the cash and vehicles. But this case is an important reminder that – absent issue or claim preclusion – parties can be strategic about which claims to pursue, and arguments to make, in civil versus criminal cases.