Attorney says former sheriff went too far
Steve Bowers’ attorney says county did illegal search of online account
A Taylor County deputy facing felony misconduct charges was back in court on Tuesday morning.
Steve Bowers has been on paid administrative leave from the Taylor County Sheriff’s Department since February 2017 over the unauthorized release of case files, relating to an unsolved murder investigation, to a true crime television program.
In October 2017, the State of Wisconsin filed the two felony charges against Bowers alleging he exceeded his authority in releasing the case files which included case information from the state Department of Criminal Investigations (DCI). In November 2017, the county personnel committee took administrative action against Bowers for the same incident, demoting him from detective sergeant to a patrol position and suspending him without pay for two months. Following the suspension, Bowers has been on paid leave from the sheriff’s department pending the outcome of the criminal case. Bowers currently lives in Wausau.
At a motion hearing before judge Robert Russell at the Taylor County courthouse on Tuesday, Bowers’ attorney Rick Cveykus argued that electronic files found on his client’s DropBox account should be suppressed because the county did not have a search warrant to access the files.
DropBox is an online cloud-based storage system that people pay a monthly fee to subscribe to and use. Bowers set up and pays for the account. However, the email account for the username is his county-issued email account. Former sheriff Bruce Daniels testified at Tuesday’s hearing that while investigating the possible release of records, personnel from the county information technology (IT) department used the “forgot password” function on the website to reset the password to the account. Daniels testified that he stopped them from logging into the account at that time so that he could check with the district attorney to see if a warrant was needed. After being advised one was not needed, he had the IT personnel access the account. According to court documents, the electronic case files were on the account with the producers of the television show having access to that account also.
The state’s position, argued by assistant attorney general Annie Jay is that the county’s technology use policy, which had been signed by Bowers, said there was no expectation of privacy when using the county computer equipment or accounts and that the county retained ownership of any data from those accounts. She said it would be no different than the county searching the data of a county-issued cellphone.
Cveykus disagreed saying that the county may have been able to get the password, but this did not give them the ability to search the DropBox account without a warrant. He compared it to having internet-connected smart locks on his home. He said gaining access to his email account to get the password to unlock the locks, would not give someone permission to enter or search his home.
In addition to asserting an electronic property right against illegal search and seizure, Cveykus argued to suppress evidence gained through what he claims is a violation of the so-called Garrity rights Garrity Rights protect public employees from being compelled to incriminate themselves during investigatory interviews conducted by their employers. This protection stems from the Fifth Amendment protection from the government compelling a person to be a witness against himself.
Cveykus cited Daniels’ email to then chief deputy Larry Woebbeking and Bowers in which Daniels called for whoever the person who released the information to essentially own up to it. Daniels testified that he did not believe that Woebbeking had anything to do with the release of the information and suspected it was Bowers.
According to court documents, Bowers responded in an email shortly after receiving Daniels’ email and admitted to releasing the records. Cveykus argued Bowers’ email should be suppressed as evidence because it implied job action against Bowers up to possible termination if he did not come forward with the information.
Jay argued against citing Daniels’ testimony that Bowers would have faced the same administrative suspension whether or not he came forward and sent the email admitting to releasing the file.
Daniels also testified that in a follow up conversation where he informed Bowers he would be placing Bowers on administrative leave, that he stopped the deputy from making additional comments.
A third issue argued at the motion hearing involved the possible use of official complaints lodged with the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) against Daniels during his tenure as sheriff.
Cveykus argued in favor of compelling the state to release the investigation on discovery. He argued that the information in the reports could impact the credibility of Daniels as a witness in an eventual trial. In his motion, he called for the release of all complaints against Daniels. However most of his argument was for the release of complaints regarding how an investigation involving Daniels’ son was handled and a complaint alleging Daniels to have destroyed evidence in a difference case.
Attorney Jay said both complaints had been reviewed by an investigator with the DOJ and that neither resulted in any action against Daniels and she did not feel they had bearing on the case. Cveykus countered suggesting that since Bowers was involved in making those complaints that Daniels actions against him could be seen as retaliatory.
Jay noted that the one case file included 42 reports while the other had about 12 reports.
Judge Russell rejected the request for all complaints against Daniels over his 34-year law enforcement career, but agreed to an “in camera” review of the case files of two specific complaints. “In camera” reviews are done in private without public access. After reviewing the files he will determine if they must be released.
The judge gave Cveykus until January 10 to file an additional motion to reconsider a previous decision in the case and until January 24 for the state to respond to that motion. A future court date will be set for those motions to be answered.