The Wisconsin Supreme Court is upholding a state law that allow hearsay evidence to be presented at preliminary hearings in felony cases. Justices ruled 6-1 on Wednesday that the 2012 state law is constitutional, after three people challenged it in court.
The legislature approved the measure partially to keep crime victims from being forced to testify in court during the early stages of a criminal case. Those hearings are when a judge typically determines if there’s enough evidence for someone to be bound over for trial, and victim’s advocates worried that forcing them to appear in court that early in the process could cause further harm. Since the change, most of the testimony at preliminary hearings now comes from police officers, who generally present the evidence they have obtained that resulted in the initial arrest.
Legal challenges were filed by Kathleen and Martin O’Brien, a Walworth County couple accused of child abuse, and Charles Butts of Kenosha, who was charged with sexual assault of a child and child enticement. They argued that the law violates their constitutional rights to confront their accusers.
The court’s majority rejected that argument though, ruling that defendants have no constitutional right to question their accusers during preliminary hearings. Writing for the majority, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley noted that the hearings are only used to determine if there’s probable cause and sufficient evidence to show a felony was committed. Bradley notes that those charged with a crime still have the ability to confront their accuser during the actual trial.