On January 5, 2016, a Madison woman threw a vacuum cleaner at or near her husband. They disagreed about whether it hit him. He called the police. When they arrived, they struggled with the woman as she tried to avoid being handcuffed.
She was charged with two counts of disorderly conduct and one count of resisting an officer. The trial was held on Tuesday.
The case was previously dismissed, and should never have been reopened, say some advocates. The District Attorney’s office has complained about limited resources for years, and DA Ismael Ozanne recently said because of that, he was committed to focusing on serious crimes like homicides, sexual assaults, violent crimes and serious drug trafficking.
“She is clearly the victim in this case," said Veronica Figueroa-Velez, executive director of UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, a Madison nonprofit organization serving victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking. "We’ve seen worse cases than this that haven’t been prosecuted, so why are we wasting our tax dollars on a vacuum cleaner?”
Tuesday night, a Dane County jury found Tania Spira not guilty of the disorderly conduct counts, but guilty of resisting an officer.
Originally from South Africa, Spira is a lawful resident but not a U.S. citizen, said Figueroa-Velez. She said she’s been working with Spira for two years on the criminal case and her subsequent divorce. Spira said during the trial that her ex-husband, Matthew Spira, was “physically abusive in the past.”
In January of 2016, Matthew Spira lived with Tania and their two children in an apartment. Their relationship was strained and they were living in separate rooms. Tania was paying rent to Matthew as well as sharing expenses. They fought after Tania discovered that Matthew was seeing another woman during a period in 2014 when they were legally separated.
Tania was in her room taking a nap before heading to her night-shift job when Matthew came home and entered her room to apologize to her. She became angry. The two disagree on whether he was ever allowed in her room. Tania raised her phone “as if she was going to strike me,” Matthew said. He exited the room and held the door shut, but eventually opened it. A vacuum cleaner was outside in the hallway, and Tania grabbed it.
According to the defense, she threw it near him, and Matthew was not injured. According to Matthew, she struck him “at least twice.” Matthew then retreated downstairs, called the police and waited for them in his room.
Two Madison police officers, Elizabeth Misener and Joseph Buccellato, arrived about 10 minutes later and took a statement from Matthew, who Misener confirmed had no “observable or reported injuries.”
The police then preceded upstairs to Tania’s room. She opened the door, but did not respond to their requests to enter, Misener said. The police entered the room to find Tania in bed with the couple's daughter. Their son was also in the room.
The officers persuaded the son to move to another room and tried to convince the daughter to leave as well. The preference for domestic disputes is to remove the children from the situation, Misener said. They couldn’t convince Tania or her daughter that the daughter should leave. At some point, they were told that Tania and her daughter were not wearing pants under the covers. They found pants for the daughter, but Tania wouldn’t leave the bed and her daughter clung to her.
The officers got Tania’s statement while she was in bed, and Misener decided she had probable cause to arrest her. The officers tried for about 10 minutes to separate Tania’s daughter from the situation so she wouldn’t be a witness to the arrest. Then Tania called Matthew on her phone and started yelling at him, so the officers decided to arrest her with her daughter in the room.
“I felt we had reached a crossroads, we’re escalating,” Meisner said in court Tuesday.
Each officer put a hand under one of Tania’s armpits and lifted her from bed. This led to a struggle, with Tania holding her hands under her stomach, at one point gripping a sheet, to avoid being handcuffed. The officers tried to handcuff her on the floor and the bed, using force to try to gain access to her hands. She was flailing and kicking, and they eventually used a Taser multiple times. During the struggle, the kids were pushing, pulling and screaming at the police officers.
According to the prosecutor, David Hart, Tania's actions were over the top, callous, profane and abusive. Tania admitted to calling Matthew a racial slur and was aggressive, she said. Hart said police “bent over backwards” to try to get a statement and send the children away.
In her opening statement, defense attorney Catherine Dorl said: “An unarmed woman was tasered by the police in her own bedroom while she was wearing nothing but a pair of panties and a tank top.”
Dorl described the marriage as “broken,” and said Tania didn’t hurt her husband or do any damage with the vacuum cleaner.
Figueroa-Velez said she attempted to contact the DA’s office to request that the case be dismissed. She said the DA’s office told her that Tania Spira had endangered her children.
Even though Tania is in the country legally, advocates are worried that her conviction could lead to deportation, Figueroa-Velez said, and are contacting an immigration lawyer.
Jessica Williams, gender justice director at Freedom, Inc., agreed the case never should have been brought to trial. But she also thinks it's an example of police brutality against African-Americans. Although Tania Spira is not American, she is black and her ex-husband is white.
Police violence often occurs when black women get angry, Williams said, pointing to the case when police officers forcefully arrested an African-American teenager at East Towne Mall last year.
“Going in her bedroom, (with Tania Spira) in her panties and a tank top — if she were white, would these officers have attacked her the way they did?” Williams said. "I don't think so."
Ozanne did not respond to multiple requests, made by phone and email, for comment.