A man who confessed to sexually assaulting more than 20 children cannot be sentenced for this, because his admission was legally inadmissible, according to a ruling by the Third District Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Ronnie Peebles, who was on probation for a prior offense, had ile participating in court-ordered sex-offender treatment. The appmade the admission wheals court ruled that it violated the federal and state constitution to use this information in a resentencing by a judge.
Peebles was convicted in 2005 of sexually assaulting a child and received a light sentence partly because he had no prior record of sexual abuse. But the judge in that case later threw the book at Peebles after he admitted, while undergoing court-ordered therapy, that he had assaulted more than 20 children in his life.
The appeals court opinion, handed down last week, concluded that because the treatment was a condition of Peebles’ probation, he was compelled to provide self-incriminating evidence, a violation of his constitutional rights. In treatment, Peebles was required to admit to counselors his entire history of sex offenses, whether they had led to criminal prosecutions or not, and he was even required to take polygraph tests to determine if he had admitted to all his crimes.
Peebles, who lived in the Green Bay area, had no prior sex offenses on his record and was originally sentenced by a Brown County judge to a year of county jail and five years of probation. Peebles participated in treatment, but his probation officer found evidence he was cutting other corners, according to the opinion. The convict had volunteered to work at a church where children would be present; he had attended story time at a library with his girlfriend and her child; and he had gone to his daughter’s school (but never went in), all violations of his probation.
At the hearing to revoke Peebles’ probation, prosecutors argued for the tough new sentence because he had admitted to being “a pedophile” with a long history of victimizing children. The judge accepted the confessions as evidence (Peebles’ defender didn’t object) and commented that he was “shaken to (his) roots” by the case because the prior sentence had been given with the understanding that Peebles “had no prior record of any type of aberrant sexual behavior.” The judge sentenced Peebles to 25 years in prison follow by 15 years of extended supervision.
But the Court of Appeals concluded that because the evidence considered at that hearing was unconstitution al, the sentence, barring an appeal by the prosecution to the state Supreme Court, will have to be recalculated by a new judge who won’t figure in the confessions.
The opinion cited a landmark 1977 case where the state Supreme Court found that “the privilege against self-incrimination extends to persons on probation” and that probation officers can’t force convicts to fess up to probation violations or other incriminating evidence. To prevent a situation where convicts refuse to talk openly to probation officers, however, this 1977 decision created a new rule granting immunity for such confessions, so they wouldn’t be admissible in court.
Last week’s appeals court ruling didn’t consider whether that immunity rule applied in this case. It based its decision solely on its conclusion that using Peebles’ confessions as evidence violated both the state and federal constitutions.