Last Friday about 13 Capitol protesters piled into a courtroom at the Public Safety Building for their initial appearances before Dane County Circuit Court Commissioner Todd Meurer. Cited for holding signs at the state Capitol, they all pleaded not guilty and asked for jury trials.
At one point, attorney Patricia Hammel, who was representing some of the protesters, asked where the prosecution was. "I heard the DOJ would be here," she said.
"I did too," said Meurer, prompting laughs from the audience.
The absence of an attorney from the Department of Justice was noticed because the Department of Administration had recently used its statutory powers to direct these cases to the justice department for prosecution.
The Dane County District Attorney's Office would normally handle these tickets, but criticism had emerged in Republican circles that DA Ismael Ozanne had routinely dismissed citations related to earlier Capitol protests.
Dana Brueck, spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, initially said her office was advised that it did not need to appear at the hearing before Meurer. She later clarified her response: "We concluded that it wasn't necessary for us to appear."
Brueck says it is not unusual for the prosecution to skip this step of the process, noting a DOJ attorney would be at the pretrial hearings.
But Madison attorney Aaron Halstead, who is representing three of those ticketed, expected to see a prosecutor there.
"I've never been to any kind of criminal or forfeiture appearance where the prosecutor wasn't represented," he says.
Meurer, however, says it is par for the course - at least in his courtroom.
"It's not unusual," he says, noting the District Attorney's Office never sends a prosecutor to initial appearances on civil forfeiture cases. If individuals plead guilty, the case is resolved then and there and the fine levied by the commissioner, says Meurer. Busy prosecutors typically sit out this piece, he says.