When officials in the tiny Town of Stettin in Marathon County went to collect a civil judgment from 75-year-old Roger Hoeppner this month, they sent 24 armed officers.
And an armored military vehicle.
Among other issues, the recent unrest in Ferguson, Mo., focused attention on the growing militarization of local law enforcement, particularly the use by even very small police departments of surplus armored military vehicles.
Marathon County sheriff’s officials aren’t apologizing for their tactics. Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Bean said officials expected to have to seize and remove tractors and wooden pallets to pay the judgment — hence the cadre of deputies. He also said what while Hoeppner was never considered dangerous, he was known to be argumentative.
Hoeppner said when he noticed deputies outside his house, he called his attorney, Ryan Lister of Wausau. Lister said he quickly left for Hoeppner’s house but was stopped by a roadblock that was kept up until after his client had been taken away in handcuffs. “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” with a show of force, Lister said.
Bean said deputies had to handcuff Hoeppner because he was not following all their instructions, but did eventually agree to pay the $80,000 judgment after a visit to a bank — accompanied by deputies.
Bean also said the armored truck was summoned only after Hoeppner initially refused to come out of his house. Once the truck appeared, so did Hoeppner.
“I’ve been involved in about five standoff situations where, as soon as the MARV showed up, the person gives up,” saving time, money and increasing safety, Bean said.
Madison’s police recently made a similar endorsement after officers used one to carry out the safe arrest of a man who had fired at police from a window of his home.
MARV stands for Marathon County Response Vehicle, which his department obtained in 2011. It’s the only one in the county and gets used 10 to 20 times a year, Bean said.
“People may not always understand why, but an armored vehicle is almost a necessity now,” Bean said.
Hoeppner has filed a notice of claim against the town, and is considering a federal civil rights lawsuit, according to a Madison attorney who represents him in another case about Hoeppner’s right to speak at town meetings.
“It’s a long-running, heavily litigated dispute over his use of his property,” said the lawyer, Jeff Scott Olson. “They’re trying to collect in a very heavy-handed manner.”
Hoeppner owns about 20 acres along Packer Drive, which runs nearly parallel with Highway 29 west of Wausau, where he restores antique tractors and runs a pallet repair business. The latter at times featured giant piles of the wooden pallets visible from Packer Drive.
In 2008, the town sued Hoeppner over claimed violations of ordinances about zoning, signs, rubbish and vehicles. About a year later, the two sides settled; Hoeppner was supposed to clean up his property, and the town was supposed to open discussions about its zoning.
The town felt Hoeppner had not complied, and it brought a motion for contempt and enforcement. In September 2010, a judge ordered Hoeppner to remove certain items from his land.
The following May, the judge found Hoeppner had still not complied and authorized the town to seize assets. In the summer of 2011, the town hauled away several tractors, pallets, equipment and other items and auctioned them off for “pennies on the dollar,” according to Lister.
But the dispute wasn’t over. In April 2013, the judge entered a final judgment that imposed a $500-a-day fine against Hoeppner for not adhering to the original May 2011 order, and granting the town’s legal fees.
Hoeppner appealed, but lost in a March ruling. So by Oct. 2, he owed the town about $80,000, according to court records, and the Town of Stettin obtained a writ of execution to collect — without notice to Hoeppner or his attorneys, they say.
Town Chairman Matt Wasmundt said neither he nor other town officials and their attorneys could comment about Hoeppner or the serving of the writ, citing pending litigation and “threats.”
Hoeppner, retired from a job at a paper factory, and Lister deny Hoeppner ever engaged in threats of any kind against Wasmundt or other town officials.
In a federal civil rights suit, Hoeppner contends that Wasmundt infringed on his free speech rights by calling deputies to town board meetings where Hoeppner wished to address the board during public comment periods, and for later eliminating public comment entirely from meeting agendas.
Once, Hoeppner said, he was arrested by the deputies at Wasmundt’s direction, only to later be released without charge.
Town called unfair
In an interview, he said he wanted to address what he felt was the town’s unfair focus on his property, when there are dozens of others arguably in violation of the town’s zoning, which is all agricultural-residential.
He said he felt Wasmundt has a “vendetta” against him and a “my way or the highway” style of running the town.
He described deputies with guns drawn walking around his garage.
Asked if he was, as the sheriff’s captain described him, argumentative, Hoeppner admitted he was probably “hostile,” though not threatening when confronted with a writ.
“The $86,000 figure is enough to shock most men,” he said. “And they wanted it now, today.” He said the town later agreed to $6,000 less because it wouldn’t have to pay for hauling away his other equipment to sell.
Hoeppner estimates that, in all, his battle with the town has cost him about $200,000, a retirement fund he “worked very hard to accumulate.” In addition, he said, his arrest the day the armored truck appeared upset his wife so much, he had to take her to a hospital for a few hours.