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Drug unit formed by local prosecutor. Critics call practice a cash grab.

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons says having his own drug-enforcement unit would help get drugs off the streeets.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons says having his own drug-enforcement unit would help get drugs off the streeets. znizami@bnd.com

A northern Illinois controversy headed to the state Supreme Court could affect a Madison County drug-interdiction unit currently in limbo.

In 2011, LaSalle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne created the State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement (SAFE) unit, a crew of investigators answering to his office who conducted drug-interdiction efforts on interstate highways. For the last five years, the unit has supplemented Illinois State Police patrols by stopping vehicles on interstates in LaSalle County, searching for drugs on their way to or from Chicago, which is about two hours east of LaSalle.

In total, the unit was responsible for 77 arrests, including a reported member of al-Qaeda and a Seattle-based murderer, according to reports from the LaSalle News Tribune.

But critics of the LaSalle County program call it a money grab. An investigation by Chicago Lawyer magazine suggested that Towne, the LaSalle County prosecutor, used cash seizures from the program to make donations to sports teams and schools as a way to promote himself. The county’s fund took in more than $1 million since it began in 2011, and the expenditures included $100,000 on travel to drug law enforcement conferences.

In 2012, LaSalle County’s SAFE team stopped a woman driving a U-Haul and confiscated 167 pounds of marijuana. Attorneys for the defendant, Cara Ringland of California, argued that the arresting officer didn’t have the authority to pull her over because of paperwork technicalities involving his fingerprinting. A LaSalle County judge threw out the evidence from the stop, and Towne’s office appealed. Ringland’s case was consolidated with four similar appeals before the 3rd District Appellate Court, each having been stopped allegedly carrying cocaine, marijuana or methamphetamine.

Two years later, the 3rd District Appellate Court not only upheld the county judge’s decision, but took a step further in calling the entire unit an overreach of the county prosecutor’s authority.

The prosecution of drug dealers and traffickers is indisputably a duty of the state’s attorney; outfitting his own drug interdiction unit is not.

3rd District Appellate Court Justice Daniel Schmidt

In his ruling on the Ringland case, Justice Daniel Schmidt wrote, “We cannot fathom how patrolling Interstate 80, issuing warning tickets, and confiscating contraband can realistically be viewed as ‘conducting investigations that assist the state’s attorney with his duties.’ The prosecution of drug dealers and traffickers is indisputably a duty of the state’s attorney; outfitting his own drug-interdiction unit is not. Such a statutory construction would effectively give the state’s attorney the power to create and maintain the equivalent of his own police force. Taken to its furthest logical conclusion, the SAFE unit would be no different than the county sheriff’s police.”

That was a problem for Madison County. State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons had just begun forming his own SAFE team, expanding his two-person investigator unit by hiring two additional officers to begin drug interdiction. Gibbons disagrees that it was an overreach.

“State’s attorneys have had special investigators for decades,” Gibbons said. “They carry guns and badges. They do the same things that police departments do…. They’re held to the same high standards as police officers with local agencies, and prosecutors still have to make judgments on their cases.”

Previously, the investigators usually handled tasks such as witness transportation, retrieving defendants from other jurisdictions, serving subpoenas and assisting in investigations. Since 2012, however, state statutes have invested state’s attorney investigators with all the powers of any police officer in Illinois, Gibbons said. “We’re all on the same side already,” he said.

Gibbons said he modeled his SAFE team after the LaSalle County team, hoping it might be a partial solution to the heroin problem that has been a major focus of his administration.

“We were looking for something we could do to have a direct impact on the tons and tons of heroin being shipped through Madison County on our interstate highways,” Gibbons said. “We’re on the direct route from Mexico to Chicago, which is the regional distribution for heroin for the Mexican drug cartels. Most of it is driven through Madison County, and then back to St. Louis.”

Interstate highways are primarily the jurisdiction of the Illinois State Police, and Gibbons said they have worked with the state for increased enforcement, paying for the lodging and support for the ISP’s specialized drug-interdiction team to come to Madison County.

But that happens only about one week a year, Gibbons said. And sometimes even less: “With the state budget as much of a mess as it is, they’ve pulled back on interstate drug interdiction,” he said. “There used to be a lot of good work being done, but it’s not there anymore.”

It’s our heroin highways... The loss of interstate drug interdiction created a free pass for the drug traffickers.

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons

Local jurisdictions are trying to do what they can, Gibbons said, but their primary responsibility is law enforcement in their own communities. One local police department has an officer assigned exclusively to the interstate, and others who have “some commitment of time,” he said.

“But we’re talking miniscule time compared to what’s really needed,” Gibbons said. “It’s our heroin highways… The loss of interstate drug interdiction created a free pass for the drug traffickers.”

Gibbons authorized use of federal and state drug asset forfeiture funds to create the unit, buying cars and equipment and funding training for the officers.

He said drug interdiction is a “really specialized area” of police work, determining the signs of a potential trafficker and buying highly specialized equipment to find hidden compartments inside vehicles.

“We have to be constantly training,” Gibbons said. “The cartels are a sophisticated, multibillion-dollar business… The violence in Chicago is not slowing down and the DEA attributes much of it to fighting over territory for heroin distribution.”

Madison County’s SAFE team had begun training, observing traffic on the interstate and beginning implementation when the appellate court struck down the La Salle case, Gibbons said. At that point, he “put on the brakes.”

But he disagrees quite strongly with the appellate court’s decision. He said their interpretation of the state’s attorney investigators is incorrect, and that they erred in going beyond La Salle’s original arguments about one officer’s credentials to rule on the validity of the entire unit.

“They read limitations into the statute that don’t exist,” Gibbons said. “They considered issues not argued or briefed.” He said he thought the decision was “unfortunate,” because the court made its decision “in the absence of a proper record.”

At the moment, the Madison County unit is on hold. One of the two officers hired for the program has since left. The remaining officer is assigned to assist the Highland Police Department and is a K-9 handler for a drug-detecting German Shorthaired Pointer named Fleck. He is assigned to Highland because they were partnered with Gibbons’ office and the Madison County Sheriff’s Department in the SAFE team, but their services are available to any agency in the county, Gibbons said.

The Illinois Supreme Court has recently agreed to take up the LaSalle case, though a date has not yet been set for arguments. When that happens, Gibbons said he may attend, in part to hear what arguments are made and to show his support for the program. The Illinois Attorney General’s office has also filed briefs supporting the SAFE units, according to the LaSalle News Tribune.

“Citizens ought to know we are doing everything we can to fight against this terrible plague of heroin that’s coming into our community and our country,” Gibbons said. “This unit was designed to directly attack the problem at the source, and to prevent the drugs from ever hitting the streets. We were able to do this without spending taxpayer money. We took drug dealers’ money and used it against other drug dealers.”

LaSalle County has confiscated more than $8 million in drugs, cash and valuables, according to the News Tribune, and made 77 arrests. All of that could be subject to expensive litigation if the Supreme Court finds that the unit is unconstitutional.

Since Madison County’s unit has not conducted any arrests, the only thing it has at risk is the initial $125,000 investment from the drug forfeiture fund, Gibbons said. But he is still hoping the Supreme Court comes down on LaSalle’s side.

“I’m hopeful we will be able to get back out on the interstates,” he said. “There is so much heroin moving through here, it’s disgusting. It comes through twice: we have two opportunities to catch it, and it’s big business.”

I’m hopeful we will be able to get back out on the interstates. There is so much heroin moving through here, it’s disgusting.

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons

As of the beginning of August, Madison County has had 18 overdose deaths in 2016 attributed at least in part to heroin. Of those, seven are still under investigation, and four involved heroin cut with fentanyl, a potent painkiller usually prescribed for cancer patients. Last year at the same time, Madison County had 32 heroin deaths.

A growing number of law and health care agencies are working to make naloxone (Narcan), available without a prescription. The drug is used to treat an opioid emergency, such as an overdose or a possible overdose of a prescription painkiller or, mo

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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