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The Illinois Cash Grab

If there's one thing my home state of Illinois succeeds in better than any other state, it's finding ways to skirt the law in an effort to get cash.  Anyone who thinks Chicago is the King Of Corruption underestimates the pioneering work of other places in the state, such as recently in LaSalle County, where the state's attorney there has created a bit of a problem for everyone, inlcuding our governor, Bruce Rauner.

First things first -- I need to explain a little something called "civil forfeiture."  Those familiar with it can skip this paragraph.  Civil forfeiture is a longstanding legal move that seizes assets involved in a criminal activity.  It's origins are in maritime law, preventing ships from leaving dock and escaping to international waters.  By seizing such property, it becomes the property of the governing body that claims it, federal, state, whatever.  It was used heavy during the Prohibition Era, but its use fell into decline.  But with the dawn of the War On Drugs, it began to be used quite heavily and unethically.  Cash strapped police departments seize cash or auction off items to pad their budgets, and at least one chief of police was caught driving a seized car he bought at auction and living in a house acquired the same way.  Most states allow seizures to occur for probable cause, but most states simply require preponderance, which is just a statistical likelihood that something illegal is happening, such as driving an older car or being in the vacinity of a known drug drop site.

Everybody still with me so far?  That's good!

Civil forfeiture has recently been getting pushback from the citizens.  Colorado recently saw a case where having to prove your innocence to get your property back, even if you were acquitted or charges were dropped got upheld, destroying the state law on the grounds that it's "innocent until proven guilty, so give them their stuff back."  Lots of people don't realize how much trouble this can yeild.  But if you watch the Chicago papers, we just saw what can happen.

In 2011, Brian Towne was the LaSalle County State's Attorney, and he hit on an idea.  He formed his own personal police force, the State's Attorney Felony Enforcement unit, or SAFE for short.  This group operated independently of the actual police and was considered "common law," which governs things like citizen's arrests and such (which is already a legally risky manuever, so why he thought this would fly, I have no idea).  It did NOT report to the police, but to the State's Attorney.  SAFE patroled state highways in LaSalle County, with a particular emphasis on I80 (for those that don't know, I80 is the fastest route from Chicago to cities on the West Coast).  Cars would be pulled over on pretense of something being wrong such as, no shit, mud flaps being too high off the ground, a K9 unit would be called to search for drugs, and if any were found, they pounced.  People didn't have to commit a crime or even be arrested, they just grabbed what they could and that was that.  SAFE wound up collecting $1.7 mil from drivers from 2011 to 2015 (it stopped because Towne was voted out of office that year.  Seems the people of LaSalle didn't like his little private army).  Among the things the money went towards was $95,000 for Towne to go to a law enforcement convention in Las Vegas, including a $17,000 per diem for travel expenses.  Yeah, seems legit.

This was the situation of Cara Ringland, who was stopped in her U-Haul because 1) the mud flaps were more than 12 inches off the ground and 2) it was unusual for a woman to be driving a U-Haul alone.  The K9 unit found 100 pounds of weed in the back of the van.  She was convicted of drug trafficking, but on appeal, the charges were vacated on the grounds that SAFE had no authority to arrest her.

Last week, the case was heard by the Illinois Supreme Court.  In a 5-2 decision, not only did they vacate Ringland's convictions, but also four other men who had been convicted on drug charges based on SAFE intervention. The majority opinion hinged on two things.  First was Section 3-9005(b) of Illinois law.  JUustice Charles Feeman wrote in his majority opinion that Towne couldn't form his own police force because "he made no showing that law enforcement agencies inadequately dealt with such investigation or that any law enforcement agency asked him for assistance.  Absent this duty, the conduct of the SAFE unit fell outside of the scope of section 3-9005(b)."  Their second concern, one a lot of us had, was Towne's interpretation of the law could lead to the formation of 102 additional police forces around Illinois, each of which would be directed by a state's attorney's office instead of actual law enforcement.  "To construe section 3-9005(b) as the State urges would promote confusion between the distinct functions of general law enforement and assisting a State's Attorney in the performance of his or her duties."

Like I said, two justices disagreed.  The minority opinion was written by Chief Justice Rita Garman, who wrote, "There is no support in our common law for restraining the common-law duties of the State's Attorney based on different types of investigations.  Nor is there any support in section 3-9005(b), which spells out the powers of special investigators, for limiting the exercise of peace officer powers based on the request or failure of other agencies."

So where does this leave us?  First, it leaves us with something that has us screaming for Rauner to sign the bill on his desk.  As it is, individuals have to prove the property was not connected to a crime instead of the police proving it was.  This would reverse that.  It also eliminates "cost bonds" -- filing fees that have to be paid by anyone contesting a forfeiture.  Equal to 10 percent of the value of the confiscated property, people would not get the cost bond back, even if they won (and keep in mind, depending on how much was seized, some people might simply be unable to put up the 10 percent, pricing them out of justice).  Finally, it also includes provisions to get tougher if people try this stunt again.  It was introduced in the state leg's spring session by Will Guzzardi, a D from Chicago -- excuse me, my brain just had a GPF and dumped the core.  I need to reboot....okay.  Anyway, it is on Rauner's desk now, just waiting for his sig.  He better sign it.

The other thing is that the ruling for the state supes opens the door for lawsuits.  In fact, that's already happening.  Alyssa Larson and Jeffrey Straker have already filed a class action suit in Chicago federal courty against LaSalle County, Towne himself, and the SAFE officers alleging that the "vigilante police force" violated their civil rights.  This ruling will make proving their case that much easier.

If the government expects us to obey the law, they should really set a better example.

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