April 25, 2007 4:58 AM PDT

Police blotter: Secret recording inadmissible against bus driver

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Police Blotter is a weekly CNET News.com report on the intersection of technology and the law.

What: Milwaukee school bus driver's abuse of a child is discovered after parents place a voice-activated recorder in son's backpack.

When: Wisconsin Court of Appeals rules April 3.

Outcome: Court says in 2-1 vote that recording cannot be used against bus driver in court because it was not obtained by police.

What happened, according to court documents:
Sometime around April 2003, Jacob Mutulo's parents began worrying that their 9-year-old son was being mistreated by the school bus driver.

According to a report that they placed on their own Web site, the school reported earlier in that school year that Jacob had been yelling and shouting in class and was reluctant to get on the school bus to return home. And the bus driver, Brian Duchow, complained that Jacob had been spitting at him.

Because Jacob has Down syndrome, the parents couldn't easily find out directly from him what was going on. According to Milwaukee radio station WTMJ AM 620, Jacob weighed about 50 pounds at the time and was not able to carry on a normal conversation. (He had also been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.)

His frustrated parents eventually came to suspect that Jacob's poor behavior at school had something to do with the bus driver who had started at the beginning of the school year. They placed a voice-activated tape recorder in Jacob's backpack and listened to it at the end of the day.

It was a remarkably disturbing recording. The tape revealed Duchow yelling such things as, "Stop before I beat the living hell out of you" and "I'm going to slap the hell out of you." Another statement was: "Do I have to tape your mouth shut, because you know I will."

The parents called the police, and Milwaukee Police Officer Steven Wells interviewed Duchow after listening to the recording for himself. The police chose not to carry out their own electronic interception.

Duchow eventually was charged with intentionally causing bodily harm to a child and with disorderly conduct. He admitted to slapping the boy twice that day. What makes this case relevant to Police Blotter is that Duchow asked the judge to suppress the recording so it could not be used against him.

After the trial judge denied the request, Duchow pleaded guilty to intentionally causing bodily harm to a child--but reserved his right to appeal.

Wisconsin state law generally prohibits the disclosure of intercepted conversations, leaving the appeals court in a bit of a tight spot. The exceptions to that general rule apply to police and to people working in concert with police.

A majority of the Wisconsin appeals court ruled that the recording was lawfully obtained--but could not be lawfully disclosed because it was not done in cooperation with police--and reversed the lower court's ruling. The case was sent back to a circuit judge, and it's unclear what will happen next.

If the police had bugged the bus the next day and remained nearby to intervene, if necessary, this would have never become an issue.

Excerpts from the Wisconsin appeals court's majority opinion:
If the interception in this case had been obtained "under color of law"--that is, through police involvement--references to the interception in the complaint would be permitted. A repeat interception in the present case could have been supervised by law enforcement with the resulting information obtained "under color of law."

That would have made the contents of such a recording admissible in this felony prosecution under Wis. Stat. 968.29(3) and properly disclosed in the complaint. However, in the present case, Duchow pleaded guilty and, therefore, the content of the interception was not used at trial. Whether the complaint itself, with disclosure of the content of the interception, would have been admissible at trial, we need not decide.

Jacob's parents acted responsibly and in the best interests of their child when they took reasonable action to protect their child from a reasonably suspected threat of harm. As the private party under the rationale of the Waste Management case, they promptly disclosed what they recorded to a law enforcement officer. There was nothing more appropriate they could have done under the circumstances.

Likewise, the officer acted appropriately in investigating the information that properly came to his attention. He interviewed Duchow and could properly communicate what he learned from the interview.

However, the recording by Jacob's parents, while "not unlawful," was not one they obtained "under color of law." Therefore, law enforcement officers or agents were not permitted by Wis. Stat. 968.29(3) to disclose the contents of the interception because they had not obtained the interception from someone acting under color of law.

This problem might have been easily remedied if another secret recording under the supervision of the police had occurred. Had that step been taken, we have little doubt that such a follow-up interception would have been obtained under color of law and admissible.

For all the foregoing reasons, we conclude that Duchow's electronically intercepted communications were "oral communications" under Wis. Stat. 968.27(12), that Jacob's parents properly consented on his behalf to the electronic interception under Wis. Stat. 968.31(2)(c), that they properly delivered the recording to law enforcement and that law enforcement officers properly used the information they learned in their investigation.

However, because the interception was not obtained under color of law, the contents of the interception were not admissible in the felony prosecution against Duchow. Therefore, we reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Excerpts from the dissent by Judge Patricia Curley:
I agree with the majority's conclusions that the recorded statements of Duchow were oral communications and that the child victim's parents could give vicarious consent to tape-record the conversation the child victim had with Duchow. However, I disagree with the majority's conclusion that the tape recording was inadmissible.

Here, the child victim's parents consented on the child's behalf to intercept the conversation between the child and Duchow, and the recording was turned over to the police. Further, their purpose in doing so was not to commit "a criminal or tortuous act." Thus, following the Maloney holding, the tape was admissible.

Moreover, under the circumstances present here, it seems illogical and contrary to common sense to approve the parents' actions to protect their child by tape-recording the conversation but prevent the state from prosecuting the offenses revealed by the recording.

I am also concerned with the majority's solution that "(t)his problem might have been easily remedied if another secret recording under the supervision of the police had occurred."

Clearly, this child had already been victimized by Duchow. The tape revealed Duchow yelling such things as, "Stop before I beat the living hell out of you," and "I'm going to slap the hell out of you."

Duchow also admitted to the police that he had slapped the child twice on the bus ride. To suggest that the victim be subjected to another such incident, just to make the recording admissible, is cruel and inhumane.

Therefore, although I agree with the majority's analysis in all other respects, I respectfully dissent with regard to the admissibility of the recordings at trial.

See more CNET content tagged:
interception, Police Blotter, appeals court, police, Wisconsin

51 comments

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The big question that is not answered here...
1. Was this scumbag fired from his job?

2. Was anyone smart enough to slap his weak azz back?

If this was my kid the bus driver would have never made it to trial.
Posted by Bizplanman (13 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The Childs Welfare
NO DOUBT! You are talking about a defenseless child here and the driver should be fired immediately! WHO, exactly voted the recording out? It should be published in the Cheese Eater Gazette or whatever ass rag paper they have up there. The SOLE objective should be to protect the children.
Posted by The Tominator (6 comments )
Link Flag
You've got it right, Bizplanman!
It's obvious from the evidence that this man is a monster and
needs to be kept away from children. Kind, sweet, positively-
oriented Down's Syndrome kids need hugs, not slaps.
Posted by thomasdosborneii (19 comments )
Link Flag
rusty chains
agreed. if i were the dad of that kid, i'd have beaten that bus driver with rusty chains until he started speaking in tongues.
Posted by sadchild (280 comments )
Link Flag
How the law SHOULD work
Quite simply, the recording should be admissible as evidence by virtue of it being identical as sworn testimony on the part of the verbally impaired witness, i.e. the Down's Syndrome boy.

The way the law is currently interpreted, you could have a murder or rape recorded without law enforcement involvement and the killer/rapist could walk away scott-free because it wasn't admissible evidence.

Realistically, a recording is no less admissible if the witness swears to its authenticity and completeness than if they were to give straight verbal testimony of the events recorded. And in fact, the recording itself is more likely to be complete than verbal/mental recollection.

Yes, recordings can be doctored. But people are way more likely to lie and distort memories on the stand than they are to modify a recording.
Posted by Dr_Zinj (727 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Agreed
Any law that would require additional recordings under the 'color of law' seemingly jeopardizes the victim whom the recording is supposed to protect in the first place.

The laws of protection don't look like they're made for protecting the victim - they're made more for protecting the aggressor.

It's too bad Judge Curley's dissent is only taken with a grain of salt - the appeals courts are utterly useless in protecting victims.
Posted by `WarpKat (275 comments )
Link Flag
The problem
The problem is not with reliability of the recording. The problem is that if any recording is allowed as evidence you'll end up with everybody recording any conversation, public or private, without the participants knowledge. And lots of people don't like that.
In this case, as the recording was taken under a reasonable suspicion situation I think it should be admitted. But the law is writen without considerqation for exceptions other than the police one, and that's what should be changed. If there's reasonable cause for suspicion, recording should be allowed by any of the parts.
Posted by herby67 (144 comments )
Link Flag
Dude, get some perspective
Ok, ok, we get that you're a big ol' tough guy. Child abuse is despicable, of course, but thank goodness that capital punishment is reserved for more serious offenses...
There is no question that this driver was likely fired, as the threshhold for employment termination is much lower than that for incarceration. And as the internet has a long memory, the likelihood that he will be given the opportunity to work with children again, even as a bus driver, is grossly lowered (if not erased).

Public humiliation, firing and hindered future employment: fully deserved.
Posted by tlcoles (11 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Thanks for your perspective
Your comments remind us of even greater issues of social justice. Even nasty old men can feel pressure and can even repent and grow up. The block was probably abused as a child and still suffers from that trauma.
Posted by Ngallendou (27 comments )
Link Flag
Scarry country
This is scarry.
Judge is applying law against the law :) Isn't it so. And if someone says that I should not make any secret recording - it means THAT person is quilty in the first place.
Soon they will be putting parents to JAIL for making secret recording. This is absurd.
Posted by alenas (181 comments )
Reply Link Flag
If I understand
your somewhat broken English then the answer is no. The Court of Appeals had determined that secret recordings done without police involvement (who I am certain would have need to obtain a warrant, and this show reasonable cause) are legally inadmissible according to State law. Had the State legislature wanted to carve out an exception for parents secreting recording devices on the children, they had every opportunity to do so. Should they wish to codify that behavior as admissible they have the authority to do so. However, as of the original recording, the law as it stood made the recording inadmissible. The court did its job properly.
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
Not Scary, free
In many states it is, in fact, illegal to secretly record people. I believe it is against Federal law to secretly record phone conversations unless the a government agency is doing so, and they would need a warrant from the court and have to supply probable cause.

The old argument that if your innocent then you shouldn't care if you are being surveiled is codswallop. In the U.S. based on the interpretation Fourth Amendment to the Constitution their is a constitutional right to privacy.

The Fourth Amendment
"The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized."
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
Post the movie on Youtube !
Justice will happen in spite of judges seeking infamy in the footnotes of some case law textbook.
Posted by Ngallendou (27 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yes by all means
Ding the Judges for doing their jobs correctly. Surely the actual law doesn't matter when you feel it shouldn't.
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
Umm...
It's a voice recording, genius.
Posted by skeptik (590 comments )
Link Flag
Downes
This kid had an intelectual diability - he could likely not convey what was said to him verbally. What kind of moronic judge would then say that an electronic record of what the kid heard was inadmissible.

Agreed 100 percent. Youtube the SOB driver so that he never works around kids again. Never works anywhere. May he rot homeless on the street.
Posted by gggg sssss (2285 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What kinf of moron
Thinks judges can rule any way they please. The judge did his job, which is correctly interpreting the law.
Posted by PzkwVIb (462 comments )
Link Flag
this kind:
One following the law he swore to uphold.
Posted by skeptik (590 comments )
Link Flag
this kind:
One following the law he swore to uphold.
Posted by skeptik (590 comments )
Link Flag
Everyone missed the point
OK, so we're railing against the drive, the judges, the system that put the kid there.

But guess who is at fault here: The cops.
They didn't complete a proper investigation. They certainly should have know the law - that's their job. Any cop who doesn't know how to complete a legally admissible case should be fired.
Sure, we wouldn't like to put the kid back in that situation, but legally admissible evidence requires it, so why weren't the cops doing their job? They took a shortcut, they lost. It's their fault.

Meanwhile, if the laws about recordins aren't to your liking, petition your congressman, who actually has the right to change the laws.
Posted by skeptik (590 comments )
Reply Link Flag
More likely the DA than the cops
The person who screwed up the most here was probably the DA. There had to be a way to make the indictment without improperly disclosing the recording and without requiring the kid to endure another day of abuse. The DA's office is supposed to work with the cops to find ways to solve this kind of problem.
Posted by jdzions (85 comments )
Link Flag
More likely the DA than the cops
The person who screwed up the most here was probably the DA. There had to be a way to make the indictment without improperly disclosing the recording and without requiring the kid to endure another day of abuse. The DA's office is supposed to work with the cops to find ways to solve this kind of problem.
Posted by jdzions (85 comments )
Link Flag
 

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