Metro-East News

Towns to keep hundreds of thousands of dollars from unconstitutional program, judge rules

A judge has ruled that several Southern Illinois towns will not repay the hundreds of thousands of dollars from drug forfeiture cases received from the La Salle County "SAFE Team," which has been deemed unconstitutional.

The northern Illinois drug interdiction experiment was created in 2011 and answered to then-State’s Attorney Brian Towne. For two years it seized hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug forfeiture cases, much of which was paid out to local townships. The city of Spring Valley received nearly $574,000; La Salle and Ottawa each received $100,000, according to the La Salle NewsTribune.

But the Safe Team program was challenged in court as unconstitutional, and ultimately, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled against La Salle.

Current La Salle County State's Attorney Karen Donnelly then sued the cities to get them to return the funds, arguing that they knew or should have known that the team was unconstitutional and that Towne did not follow proper procedures in arranging for dispersal of the funds — including giving 65 percent of the funds to the city of Spring Valley, which is outside La Salle County.

But the courts disagreed, as a judge ruled in February 2017 that the cities do not have to return the funds, according to the NewsTribune.

"All parties to the agreement believed it to be legal and proper," the ruling read.

Donnelly told the NewsTribune at the time that if the forfeited funds were returned, they would help pay the judgments for defendants convicted by SAFE who are now suing the county. She chose to re-file her motions to order return of the funds from the cities.

Now the lawyers for Spring Valley, Ottawa and La Salle are filing their own motions ahead of a hearing next week, according to the NewsTribune. The attorneys for the cities say they had a good-faith agreement with La Salle County for acceptance and use of the forfeited funds, and that the judge was right to rule against Donnelly in the first place.

The case has been moved to nearby Grundy County to avoid conflicts of interest in La Salle County.

Meanwhile, some plaintiffs who were charged by the SAFE Team’s interdictions have sued La Salle County alleging violation of their civil rights and trying to get their confiscated funds back, while other criminal cases are bogged down in court. The last two suspects imprisoned by SAFE Team busts were released in January with their convictions overturned, according to the NewsTribune.

Towne, who is now facing 17 felony charges, was defeated in the 2016 election. He had served 24 years as state’s attorney, and was immediately hired as a state appellate prosecutor. But he is currently charged with 13 counts of official misconduct and four counts of misapplication of funds. He faces 2-5 years in prison, and a special prosecutor will be chosen after the judge removed Donnelly from the case.

The La Salle SAFE Team program initially inspired Madison County to create a similar unit, also funded through drug forfeiture funds. But the Madison County team never actually entered operation; before it could launch, the La Salle program was challenged in court, and Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons put the program on hold until the courts could rule. After La Salle’s team was declared unconstitutional, the Madison County program was fully disbanded.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald