Winnebago Co. man loses appeal on sex predator case

Wisconsin Supreme Court justices on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. (WLUK/Don Steffens)

MADISON - The state can seek to have someone committed as a sexual predator, even if a criminal conviction cited as the basis is overturned, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, in a case involving a Winnebago County man.

Joseph Spaeth was convicted in 1993 of first-degree sexual assault of a child. After being released from prison, he was charged again in 2006 with four counts of sexual assault of a child. He was convicted, but those convictions were later vacated by the circuit court. Spaeth then pleaded no contest to child enticement instead in 2009.

In 2010, the state sought to have Spaeth committed to a mental health facility as a sexually violent person, under the Chapter 980 provisions. But in 2012, the state Supreme Court overturned that 2009 conviction and the charges were dropped.

Spaeth argued that the state should not be allowed to proceed with sexual predator case, as the 2009 convictions were dropped. But in a ruling Wednesday, the court ruled that because the conditions were met at the time of the filing, the case against Spaeth can continue.

"We conclude that if a Chapter 980 petition satisfies the statutory requirements in Wis. Stat. § 980.02 at the time it is filed, it will not be invalidated if the conviction recited in the petition is later reversed.  Consequently, we determine that the State's petition should not have been dismissed," Justice Michael Gableman wrote in the 4-3 decision. "The State filed a valid petition based on the facts as they existed at the time.  The fact that Spaeth's conviction was later overturned unquestionably impacts the strength of the State's case for his commitment, but this does not negate the validity of the State's petition at the time of filing."

Justice David Prosser authored the dissent:

"In sum, Wis. Stat. § 980.015(2) requires that the sexually violent offense named in a Chapter 980 petition be a sexually violent offense on which the person was confined at the time of filing.  The statute sets a standard; it has been revised to allow some flexibility.  The State cannot disregard this statutory prerequisite because it does not like the result any more than it can disregard the fact that its authority to file a petition is fundamentally diminished once it releases a person from confinement."

The case was sent back to the circuit court to continue to sexual predator proceedings.