Metro-East News

State, local officials differ on access to driving records in Willis case

Steven L. Willis of Maryville is accused of driving under the influence of alcohol when his pickup hit Samantha Miller of Swansea.
Steven L. Willis of Maryville is accused of driving under the influence of alcohol when his pickup hit Samantha Miller of Swansea.

Secretary of State Jesse White disputes statements from local officials regarding access to driving records in the wake of the Steven Willis case, but they maintain the system as it currently exists prevents easy access to the information.

Willis has been charged with aggravated driving under in the influence resulting in a death after colliding with a stalled car by the side of Interstate 55 last month. He is accused of driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.12 percent, well over the 0.08 percent threshold for a DUI. The collision killed Samantha Miller and injured her three young children.

A review of Willis’ court records revealed he had 40 prior traffic citations, most of them for speeding. Of those, 29 resulted in a sentence of court supervision, in which the offense is not reported to the state and does not infringe on the driver’s record.

Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons had said one of the barriers in the system is that prosecutors cannot see court-supervision cases in other counties — if a defendant has recently received court supervision in St. Clair County, he said, that fact may not be available to the prosecutor in Madison County.

But White says in a letter to the News-Democrat that every county in the state has a direct inquiry computer system to look up a driving record.

“Any county can access and print complete driving records, which would include all traffic tickets that were reported in any of the 102 counties statewide,” White wrote. “This is an important tool that better ensures dangerous drivers are kept off of our roads, and it is one that must be used consistently.”

Gibbons said there is one computer in the state’s attorney’s office that is tied into the state to pull driver’s license abstracts. That computer is not available in traffic courtrooms, he said, and would not include court supervision cases, which comprised the majority of Willis’ record.

“It’s kind of apples and oranges,” he said. “They’re talking about the ability to run a driver’s license abstract… That’s not a system available to prosecutors in the courtroom, and even if it were, it would not have been helpful in this case.”

Willis mailed in many of his tickets, checking the box asking for “court supervision.” Those tickets are processed without review by prosecutors or a judge, Gibbons said. “(Willis’ tickets) wouldn’t even show up, because court supervisions aren’t on the abstract,” he said.

White also said there is another database for court supervision, which can be accessed by local officials. Madison County Circuit Clerk Mark Von Nida said the county added this system, called ICCIC or Illinois Circuit Clerk Information Center, in 2013.

However, Von Nida said it is not as simple as just entering a name. “There are issues of privacy with driver’s licenses and access to the information,” Von Nida said. “You can’t just query it and get into the system and look for anything.”

Instead, ICCIC takes the names on the upcoming traffic docket and pulls the records from the Secretary of State’s records. If the person mails in the ticket with payment in advance, the name would never appear on the docket and thus ICCIC would not pull up the record, Von Nida said.

“The fact of the matter is, at the same time we’re working on greater convenience for the 99 percent of people who get traffic tickets, (who) are law-abiding citizens who have a little bit of a heavy foot, the 1 percent of scofflaws have to be caught, too,” Von Nida said.

... At the same time we’re working on greater convenience for the 99 percent of people who get traffic tickets, (who) are law-abiding citizens who have a little bit of a heavy foot, the 1 percent of scofflaws have to be caught too.

Mark Von Nida, Madison County Circuit Clerk

In addition, Von Nida said ICCIC is not universally available among Illinois counties. “I found out about it by chance when visiting Champaign,” he said. “It’s not generally available to every county, and it had to be integrated into our system.” It also requires a memorandum of understanding with the Secretary of State’s office governing its proper use and limits what can be accessed, Von Nida said.

Things are improving, Gibbons said: In past years, there were no computers in the courtroom and no way at all for prosecutors to check records. “One of the things Mark Von Nida has been working on with the upgrades to the court records system is that eventually we will be able to tap into some of the other counties,” Gibbons said. “That’s been a large step forward… A unified records system would be great, but we don’t have that.”

The mail-in system provides a convenience to the vast majority of people who get tickets, Von Nida said. But it is possible that if a defendant gets a traffic ticket in January and goes to court, it will end up in the system, but if he pays by mail six months later, it won’t be visible to other prosecutors.

Von Nida said he is hoping to dial into a third system called Center Court, which would connect Madison County with at least some other counties for full access to information.

“If they have it, we would love to have access to it in every courtroom for all prosecutors,” Gibbons said. “We do not currently have access to it.”

53,000 Traffic tickets processed yearly in Madison County

One of the biggest stumbling blocks is not funding, he said, but development time: there are only so many computer programmers working on the projects, and they are also working other projects such as electronic ticketing in squad cars to eliminate the carbon-copy paper traffic tickets that have been standard use since the 1940s. And there’s a learning curve among lawyers, prosecutors, clerks, members of the public and even judges, Von Nida said.

“We have all kinds of automation, but it’s clunky,” Von Nida said. “This operates like a mainframe from the 1990s. It doesn’t crash, it holds an enormous amount of data, and it’s very robust, it’s safe from the outside world. But what that means is for the average user, it’s difficult to retrieve information.”

What would Von Nida like? A public access system that runs like a Google for court records, with documents indexed and searchable by keyword. And he’s working on that, he said.

Madison County processes approximately 53,000 traffic tickets in an average year, according to state’s attorney’s spokeswoman Stephanee Smith.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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