A small town and a sheriff’s department used an armored vehicle and 24 deputies to collect a civil judgment from a 75-year-old man in a case that has spotlighted the militarization of America’s police.
The show of force stemmed from a dispute over zoning and code violations between the man, Roger Hoeppner, and the town of Stettin, Wisconsin.
“Rather than provide Mr. Hoeppner or his counsel notice … and attempt to collect without spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on the military-style maneuvers, the town unilaterally decided to enforce its civil judgment,” Hoeppner’s attorney Ryan Lister told The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The attorney also alleged that deputies kept him from seeing his client after Hoeppner called him.
Armored Vehicle Called a ‘Necessity’
“People may not always understand why, but an armored vehicle is almost a necessity now,” Marathon County Sheriff’s Captain Greg Bean told The Journal Sentinel. Bean was one of the deputies on the scene.
Bean and the other deputies were there to seize Hoeppner’s property, including tractors and pallets. The seizure was part of an attempt to collect a civil judgment of $80,000 against Hoeppner. The town had sued the business owner after Hoeppner refused to clean up his property.
“It’s a long-running, heavily litigated dispute over his use of his property,” another of Hoeppner’s attorneys, Jeff Scott Olson, told the newspaper. “They’re trying to collect in a very heavy-handed manner.”
When Hoeppner, his wife and son refused to come out of the house or accept a judgment document, deputies called in the Marathon County Response Vehicle, or MARV, that was once owned by the US military but later given to the sheriff’s department. Hoeppner apparently never pulled a gun. Instead, he and his family stayed in the house and closed the blinds.
“That’s not normal behavior and it causes us concern, especially when there are a lot of threatening statements leading up to this and our attempts at arbitration and mediating this out failed,” Chad Billeb, the chief deputy for the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department, told USA Today.
Lister maintains that Hoeppner simply did not want to talk to authorities until his attorney was present. Lister could not get to the residence due to a roadblock local police had set up. He also says Hoeppner never threatened police.
Eventually, Hoeppner visited a bank and paid the fees, but was accompanied by deputies.
Sheriff: Armored Vehicle not a Show of Force
Madison County Sheriff Scott Parks told reporters that the use of the armored vehicle was not a show of force. Some of Captain Bean’s statements indicate otherwise.
“I’ve been involved in about five standoff situations where, as soon as the MARV showed up, the person gives up,” Bean told The Journal Sentinel.
Hoeppner and Lister have filed a $4.5 million lawsuit against the town. Lister alleges that Hoeppner’s wife had to go to the hospital because of stress from the show of force.
This is not the first time that Hoeppner has sued the town of Stettin. The Journal Sentinel reported that Hoeppner filed a federal civil rights lawsuit because he was prevented from speaking at town board meetings. On at one least occasion Hoeppner was arrested by deputies and taken out of the meeting. Hoeppner contends the town violated his free speech rights.
The town and Hoeppner have been involved in a court battle over zoning and code violations since 2008. Hoeppner contends that the code enforcement is a “vendetta” against him by Town Chairman Matt Wasmundt.
Dozens of other properties in town are in a similar situation to his, and the town has done nothing, Hoeppner said.
The retired paper factory worker also claims that the dispute with the town has cost him most of his $200,000 retirement nest egg.
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