Metro-East News

County prosecutors can’t form own police units to find drugs, Supreme Court rules

A ruling issued Thursday by the Illinois Supreme Court puts a permanent quash on the Madison County state’s attorney’s drug-interdiction unit, which never fully launched after court challenges questioned the constitutionality of such units.

The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed a lower courts’ ruling 5-2 Thursday morning in a case centered on the SAFE Unit created by the La Salle County state’s attorney to conduct drug interdiction efforts, including traffic stops.

The State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement (SAFE) unit operated for five years in La Salle County, primarily stopping and searching cars on their way to or from Chicago. The unit was comprised of investigators from the prosecutor’s office who previously handled tasks such as witness transportation, retrieving defendants from other jurisdictions, serving subpoenas and otherwise assisting in investigations. They were granted similar powers to police officers in 2012 by state law.

In total, La Salle’s SAFE Unit was responsible for 77 arrests, including a reported member of al-Qaeda member and a Seattle-based murderer, according to news reports from the La Salle NewsTribune.

In the meantime, Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons saw the progress La Salle was making and began creating a SAFE Unit of his own, expanding his two-person special investigator unit with two additional officers and began training, funded by $125,000 in drug forfeiture funds.

Then came the La Salle County case.

Cara Ringland was allegedly driving a U-Haul carrying 167 pounds of marijuana when she was stopped by the La Salle SAFE Unit in 2012. In court, Ringland argued that the arresting officer didn’t have the authority to pull her over because of paperwork technicalities involving his fingerprinting.

A La Salle County judge threw out the evidence from the stop, and when then-La Salle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne appealed, her case was consolidated with four similar appeals before the 3rd District Appellate Court.

Two years later, the appellate court upheld the circuit court’s decision and went a step further, declaring the entire SAFE Unit an overreach of the state’s attorney’s authority.

In its decision issued Thursday, the Illinois Supreme Court agreed, with two judges dissenting. The court held that while a state’s attorney may perform the investigative functions normally performed by police officers and has a duty to determine whether an offense has been committed, it is supposed to be in assistance to the police, not supplanting them.

“We hold that the State’s Attorney’s common-law duty to investigate suspected illegal activity did not apply to Towne because he made no showing that law enforcement agencies inadequately dealt with such investigation or that any law enforcement agency asked him for assistance,” the opinion read.

Gibbons had said that Illinois’ roads were becoming “heroin highways,” and while police departments were doing the best they could, they did not have enough manpower or funding to make a dent in the drug traffic on area highways.

“We are well aware that these very same drugs make their way back to north St. Louis for distribution to Madison County and the rest of Southern Illinois,” Gibbons said. “These drugs are poisoning our community and killing our kids. It is my sworn duty to protect the citizens of Madison County, and I will never waver in my commitment to do just that.

“Regardless of this one decision, I am not giving up on all the good work we’ve been doing to address the serious problems associated with drug addiction and to rid our streets and highways of these deadly drugs.”

Gibbons said he strongly disagreed with the court’s decision.

“We have been fighting the heroin epidemic for over six years and have recognized the need for a comprehensive approach to solving this terrible problem,” he said. “We are now engaged on many fronts throughout the community, working with experts in treatment, education and law enforcement to push back against this scourge, and win the fight for the soul of our community and so many families and young lives who have been cursed by these terrible drugs.”

La Salle’s position was also supported by the Illinois Attorney General’s office, and two judges on the Supreme Court dissented, calling it a “restrictive interpretation of the state’s attorney’s duties.” The dissent stated that the law specifically allows special investigators to “conduct investigations which assist the state’s attorney in the performance of his duties,” and one such duty is to investigate suspected illegal activity. “There is nothing in our common or statutory law prohibiting the state’s attorney from undertaking independent investigations,” it read.

The majority opinion, however, focused on the next part of the statute: “to investigate suspected illegal activity when it is not adequately dealt with by other agencies.”

The dissent opinion read that it was unclear who could determine whether a situation was being adequately investigated, or how a court would review that determination. Gibbons agreed, stating that the court’s decision gave no guidelines for when existing law enforcement was inadequate and it would be appropriate and constitutional for state’s attorneys to step in.

Interstate highways are primarily the jurisdiction of the Illinois State Police, and Gibbons had said they have worked with the state for increased enforcement, paying for lodging and support for the specialized drug interdiction team to come to Madison County. But it happens only one week a year, Gibbons said, and funding for drug interdiction has been cut. Local law enforcement does what it can, he said, but their primary responsibility is to their municipality, not the state highways.

“What’s frustrating for us is the fact that as state police budgets are cut, and budgets for interstate drug interdiction are reduced, there has been an absence — a vacuum — in that area, and that’s what we created the unit to do,” Gibbons said. “There is an absence of resources to deal with this problem. ... That’s why this is frustrating for me, because we recognize a need that is not met currently by law enforcement levels that are available to us, and we were attempting to step in and take charge of this very serious problem.”

Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Robert Thomas, Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis supported the majority decision written by Justice Charles Freeman. Justices Rita Garman and Thomas Kilbride dissented.

Madison County’s team had begun training, but Gibbons halted implementation of the plan after the appellate court decision, awaiting the ruling from the Illinois Supreme Court. In the meantime, one of the officers that had been hired left, and the other was assigned as a police dog handler for the Highland Police Department. He has also since left, Gibbons said.

The equipment that was purchased for Madison County’s SAFE Unit must be either transferred to other law enforcement agencies or sold, with the funds returned to drug asset forfeiture. Among the equipment was a car, which has been on loan to the Highland Police Department, and a drug detection kit valued at $17,000 that includes a density detector to locate hidden compartments in cars. Gibbons said they have a few ideas where the equipment could be distributed to best help law enforcement.

The hardest choice, Gibbons said, is what to do with Fleck, a three-year-old Shorthaired Pointer K-9. He is a drug detector dog and apparently quite good at his job, Gibbons said.

“That’s really sad to let go, because he’s an excellent drug-detecting animal,” Gibbons said. Fleck has been on loan to the Rolla (Missouri) Police Department while they waited for the court’s decision, and Gibbons said they’ve had several offers to buy Fleck due to his performance.

Why not let Fleck go to a metro-east police department? Gibbons said most local police units need K-9’s who can handle apprehension of suspects as well as drug detection, and Fleck is solely a detection dog.

No arrests were made or cases prosecuted involving Madison County’s SAFE Unit and all funds used were drug asset forfeiture funds, so the financial impact is estimated to be minimal. However, La Salle County had confiscated more than $8 million in drugs, cash and valuables as well as its 77 arrests, which could be subject to expensive litigation following the ruling. Towne lost his re-election bid in 2016.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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