Illegal Arrests Challenged In LaSalle CountyPublished: Sep 23, 2016, by in Constitutional Rights, Criminal Defense, Legal Blog
If you got pulled over and charged with a drug crime in LaSalle or Madison Counties, an upcoming Illinois Supreme Court decision may affect your case. The issue at hand is whether LaSalle County state attorney Brian Towne overstepped his authority when he conceived the State Attorney Felony Enforcement (SAFE) team in 2011, which employed former police officers to conduct patrols, perform traffic stops, and seize the property of suspected traffickers. Madison County implemented a similar program in 2014.
SAFE Teams Have Confiscated Millions on Illinois Highways
Ostensibly, the goal of the SAFE units is to aid in the prosecution of drug traffickers. In this respect, they have been very successful, having contributed towards the conviction of 66 individuals. But critics claim that these teams also profited from their law enforcement activities. In 2014 alone, the LaSalle County SAFE team confiscated $900,000 in cash, 14 vehicles, tens of thousands of dollars in gold and silver, and $7.9 million worth of drugs such as marijuana, methamphetamine, and cocaine.
Under the laws of civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can keep the cash and other valuables that they confiscate from drug crime suspects. They don’t have to return the property even if the suspects prove their innocence in court. Instead, the suspects must challenge the seizure through a different court hearing. Out of 50 seizures that occurred in LaSalle County, less than half resulted in criminal charges, and an even smaller portion resulted in actual convictions.
The SAFE teams had bank accounts to hold the cash obtained from property seizures, and they would share their loot with local police agencies that offered the use of their K9 units. With most of the confiscations not resulting in any criminal charges, it seems that the SAFE units’ practical purpose was not to aid in the prosecution of criminals, but to fill the coffers of the state attorney’s office at the expense of people who were never proven guilty in court.
Did SAFE Teams Have Authority to Arrest and Seize Assets?
The state attorney offices of both LaSalle and Madison County claim that the SAFE teams helped keep drugs off the streets. Even if many of the confiscations didn’t result in criminal charges, they argue, the seized money was used to strengthen the state attorney offices’ ability to effectively prosecute other suspects. Whatever the beneficial effect of these seizures, these arguments gloss over important issues.
The appeals court—which took the side of the suspects whose property was seized—stated: “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.” In other words, some judicial authorities have taken the view that the SAFE teams are not legitimate law enforcement agencies.
Further, the Illinois Cannabis Control Act and the Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act both include a section that states: “While forfeiture may secure for state and local units of government some resources for deterring drug abuse and drug trafficking, forfeiture is not intended to be an alternative means of funding the administration of criminal justice.” This provision stands in direct contradiction with the activities and structure of the SAFE teams.
Until the Illinois Supreme Court makes a final decision on the legality of the SAFE teams, their activities have been suspended. This means that only members of traditional law enforcement agencies will be making traffic stops on the highways of Illinois, and the prosecutor’s offices won’t be taking money from the very people they are putting behind bars.
Call O’Meara Law Today
At O’Meara Law LLC we are dedicated to the cause of social justice. For us, this means advocating for and protecting the rights of the accused as they face the Illinois criminal justice system. If you have been wrongly charged with a crime or want to learn more about civil asset forfeiture in Illinois, call today us at 312-909-0706 for a free consultation or contact us online.