Under a new bill, legislators would be able to access records from closed John Doe investigations and police would be required to report new surveillance technology to lawmakers.
John Doe investigations are secret investigations where the identities of parties in the case are kept private until the case is closed. Wisconsin is the only state to have this law on the books.
Gov. Scott Walker was the subject of a John Doe investigation which closed, but is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Under the bill, the details of the John Doe investigations would only be viewed by a single committee, not by the entire Legislature, author of the bill, Rep. David Craig, R-Big Bend, said. The information would also not be released to the public. He said legislators need to oversee what’s happening to know whether or not reforms need to be made to law enforcement’s processes.
Craig said lawmakers have the “authority and duty” to review John Doe investigations once they’re closed, and find out whether state policies should be revised.
“If there’s something that’s secret in the executive branch, how are you supposed to know whether a policy is working?” Craig said. “We’re elected to do a job and a main part of that job is executive oversight.”
Craig said if a policy needs to be changed, the committee could bring forward legislation to reform it without revealing the details of the John Doe investigations.
But Robert Drechsel, UW journalism and mass communications professor, said the timing of this legislation raises suspicion.
“It seems more than coincidental that is something that is happening in the context of two highly controversial … John Doe investigations that have reached all the way up to the State Supreme Court and continue to be litigated,” Drechsel said.
Drechsel doesn’t think there’s reason for that kind of government intervention to be necessary.
Another provision of the bill would require law enforcement to send a notification to a committee whenever they use new technology.
Some new surveillance technologies such as sting ray phone trackers and x-ray devices have the potential to infringe on citizens’ civil liberties, Craig said. The Legislature should have information about these technologies to prevent this from happening.
“We have all this technology out there and we have no idea if departments have it in Wisconsin,” Craig said. “It’s just a level of irresponsibility for the Legislature not to have a firm grasp of what’s out there.”
Drechsel said many are concerned with whether police should have these sophisticated military technologies.
Craig said in a meeting with law enforcement last month, police expressed a variety of concerns with the bill. He said he hopes they will be able to work out a compromise.
“I’m very optimistic that we can work out a compromise …. [so] that law enforcement doesn’t feel the Legislature is overstepping its bounds or interfering with investigations,” Craig said. “None of us want to do that.”