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The John Birch Society gained a national following in the 1960s when, according to a video done for the New York Times, the ultra-conservative group "saw communism everywhere: in the civil rights movement, in Congress, in the office of the United States president."
Its profile may have faded, but the Wisconsin-based organization is still active.
Among other things, the John Birch Society holds seminars around the country to oppose Agenda 21, a United Nations program it says "seeks for the government to curtail your freedom to travel as you please, own a gas-powered car, live in suburbs or rural areas, and raise a family."
The society is also warning of a little-noticed measure pending in the Wisconsin Legislature, Assembly Bill 237.
In an article critical of the bill that was posted on its website Nov. 4, 2011, the group said that under the bill, "minor offenses such as violating pet leash laws, seat belt laws, parking infractions, etc., would now be arrest-able offenses."
Handcuffs and jail for letting a dog run loose, failing to buckle up or parking improperly?
Let’s find out.
To support its claim about the bill -- which passed one Assembly committee, 9-0, on Oct. 25, 2011, and is waiting to be scheduled for a vote by the full Assembly -- the society’s article cited two things: The bill’s language and a list of offenses that would become "arrest-able."
The one-sentence bill simply says law enforcement officers "may arrest a person for a law violation that is punishable by a civil forfeiture."
The word arrest indicates the claim by the John Birch Society is on the right track. Indeed, the claim suggests the arrests allowed under the bill would be a dramatic change from the status quo.
An analysis by the state Legislative Reference Bureau doesn’t elaborate much on the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, husband of Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
But a memo from the state Legislative Council, which provides legal and other research services to the Legislature, said the bill provides law enforcement officers "additional arrest authority" for state civil forfeitures -- non-criminal offenses prohibited by state law.
The bill is needed mainly for two reasons, said Joel Kleefisch’s research assistant, Stephanie Kundert: to provide uniform enforcement around Wisconsin of state forfeitures, which are punishable by a fine; and to protect law enforcement agencies from lawsuits like one filed against the Brookfield Police Department in suburban Milwaukee.
In that case, a Milwaukee woman was arrested at gunpoint in July 2010 after attending a Brookfield church service while wearing a holstered handgun. The woman, assisted by the Wisconsin Carry gun-rights group, filed a federal civil rights suit, which the City of Brookfield settled in January 2011 by paying her $7,500.
One legal claim the woman made was police had no legal authority to arrest her and that helped expose the need for the Kleefisch bill, said Brookfield Assistant Police Chief Dean Collins, who is the main promoter of the bill.
By way of background, Collins, who served more than 30 years in the Milwaukee Police Department, pointed out that state law already gives police the power to make arrests under three sets of circumstances:
For felony and misdemeanor crimes.
For local ordinance violations, such as a dog at large.
For traffic offenses, including parking violations or failing to wear a seat belt.
So, despite what the John Birch Society claim suggests, a dog at large is already an arrest-able offense in communities that have such an ordinance; and failing to wear a seat belt and parking violations are among traffic violations that already are arrest-able offenses statewide.
But, ironically, no state law gives officers the power to enforce state forfeitures.
"It’s a void in the law and it was just not noticed for many, many years," Collins said at an Oct. 19, 2011 public hearing on the bill.
The Kleefisch bill -- endorsed by state associations that represent Wisconsin’s police chiefs, sheriffs and district attorneys -- is needed so officers can enforce state forfeitures, such as the one that prohibits dogs at large, in communities where no such local ordinance exists, Collins said.
More importantly, he said, the bill would give legal authority for officers statewide to enforce more serious state forfeitures that are not covered by local ordinances.
In a letter to lawmakers, Collins cited a number of offenses many would consider serious:
- Electioneering at a polling place
- Intoxicated or reckless flying of aircraft
- Felons installing burglar alarms
- Hotel rooms used for underage use of alcohol or drugs
- Disturbance of human graves
- Transportation of firearms
- Tattooing of children
The list also include offenses that might be considered less serious: trespassing on private property; sending unsolicited faxes; fireworks violations; body passing at sports events; improper use of laser pointers and refusal to pay bus fare.
Haven’t police and sheriff’s deputies already been enforcing such things?
Kundert said many police agencies have been doing so for many years, even though they lack explicit legal authority. Officers investigate a state forfeiture violation and report it to the county district attorney. In turn, the district attorney can file an action in Circuit Court that can result in a person being ordered to pay a fine.
Collins predicted that if the Kleefisch bill does not become law, some law enforcement agencies will stop taking action for state forfeitures for fear of being sued like Brookfield was. Wisconsin Carry, which opposes the bill, says it "vastly expands police authority" and won’t legally protect police agencies that make arrests like Brookfield did in the gun case.
A final point before we conclude.
Collins stressed that the word arrest has broad meaning in the law. An arrest can involve being handcuffed and put in jail; but legally a person is under arrest just by being detained and questioned by an officer, he said.
The John Birch Society said that under a bill pending in the Legislature, "minor offenses such as violating pet leash laws, seat belt laws, parking infractions, etc., would now be arrest-able offenses."
Dog at large violations are already arrest-able in communities that have such ordinances and seat belt and parking violations are arrest-able statewide -- though the arrest typically does not involve handcuffs or jail, but rather a person being detained or perhaps ending up with a fine.
The bill would make numerous state forfeitures arrest-able. But that would simply give legal authority for something officers already doing -- detaining and sometimes referring to prosecutors people suspected of violating non-criminal state laws.
The John Birch Society statement is partially accurate but leaves out important information. That’s our definition of Half True.
John Birch Society, "Wisconsin bill would greatly expand arrestable offenses," Nov. 4, 2011
John Birch Society, About page
New York Times, "Inside the John Birch Society," June 25, 2009
WisconsinEye, video of public hearing of Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Corrections on Assembly Bill 237 (at 53:25), Oct. 19, 2011
Wisconsin Legislature, Assembly Bill 237 legislative documents
Wisconsin Carry Inc., letter to lawmakers, Oct. 27, 2011
Brookfield Police Department assistant chief Dean Collins, letter to lawmakers, Oct. 5, 2011
Interview, Brookfield Police Department assistant chief Dean Collins, Nov. 8 and 9, 2011
Interview, Rep. Joel Kleefisch research assistant Stephanie Kundert, Nov. 10, 2011
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Brookfield pays woman who brought gun to church $7,500," Jan. 4, 2011
Email interview, John Birch Society director of missions Larry Greenley, Nov. 8, 2011
Wisconsin Legislative Council, Assembly Bill 237 memo, Nov. 2, 2011
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