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6/5/2015 1:25:00 AM
Appeals court: Prosecutor SAFE team drug busts moot


By Craig Sterrett and Kevin Caufield
NewsTribune Staff

OTTAWA — Five drug arrests are for now moot and the future is in doubt for the La Salle County State’s Attorney’s office’s SAFE team following a 3rd District Appellate Court opinion issued this week. However, La Salle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne said he will file an appeal with the Illinois Supreme Court and a petition for a rehearing in the Appellate Court in the case of The People vs. Ringland. “… respecting the nature of our system of justice and the court, the People intend to challenge the court’s ultimate holding; courts, like all of us, make mistakes,” Towne said.

The first ruling
The court upheld a trial court ruling by Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr., stating that drug-investigative SAFE team arresting officer Jeff Gaither, a retired state trooper, did not have proper credentials according to very specific definitions of SAFE units as outlined by state statute. SAFE Unit team members are required to be fingerprinted anew before being approved for duty.
A motorist hauling 167 pounds of marijuana through La Salle County in early 2012, Cara Ringland, persuaded Ryan that Gaither should not have made an arrest, because he was not fingerprinted for a background check in recent years, but rather when he was a state trooper several years prior.
The appeals-court opinion said not only was Ryan correct to approve a motion to suppress evidence in Ringland’s case, but also in four other drug-seizure cases that were consolidated with Ringland’s, based on Gaither making the arrests. In response, Towne said he was advised by officials within the Illinois State Police that they already had Gaither’s fingerprints on file so there was no need to resend them. “When we were doing the background check as required by statute Illinois State Police told us they didn’t need them,” Towne said. “Why would we send them something they already have on file?”

The second ruling
In addition, the appeals court agrees with assertions by lawyers for Ringland as well as for Steven Pirro, James Saxen, Steven Harris and Matthew Flynn, that state’s attorney’s office employees do not have the authority to enforce the law, but rather only to “assist” the state (prosecutor’s office) as investigators.
“Risking redundancy,” the appellate opinion reads, “it is important to note that the State’s Attorney has the authority to appoint special investigators to perform only three specific functions: (1) serving subpoenas; (2) making a return of process; and (3) conducting investigations that ‘assist the State’s Attorney in the performance of his duties.’
“The statute is conspicuously devoid of any other functions a special investigator may undertake.”
“Defendant Saxen urges this court to find that the investigations the special investigator may conduct under the statute are limited to those crimes that have already come to the attention of the State’s Attorney. Such a reading would place Gaither’s traffic stops squarely outside the scope of section 3.”
The appellate court concurs with Saxen’s assertion, in extremely strong language.
The justices wrote: “We cannot fathom how patrolling Interstate 80, issuing warning tickets, and confiscating contraband can be realistically 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. ”Towne defends SAFE team
Towne said he would file an appeal because the appellate court’s holding of whether he could operate the SAFE team was never fully brought before the court.
“The people were not given a chance to fully litigate that issue,” he said.
There also is case law backing up Towne’s claim that the SAFE team is legal in the way it’s operated when the issue was brought before Chief Judge Ryan in The People vs. Huls. In that case, Ryan ruled the SAFE team was legal.
“In that case, we fully litigated that issue and Judge Ryan ruled the SAFE team is legal,” Towne said. “But the appellate court never gave us an opportunity to fully make our case.”
Risky business, lawyer says

Stephen Komie, Chicago attorney for Cara Ringland who launched the case against Towne’s team, says Towne puts himself and the county at risk of civil lawsuits by operating the SAFE team.
“The county attorney loses all immunity if they kill somebody out on the highway,” he said, emphasizing Towne is at risk because his position is not to be a law “enforcer.”
“The state’s attorney’s duty is to provide a check and balance on law enforcement for the protection of citizens,” Komie said. “If the state’s attorney is the chief of police, there is no one to protect the people from the excesses and mistakes of the law enforcement officers.”
“The (3rd District Appellate) court followed the law as made by the General Assembly that does not authorize a highway patrol operated by a state’s attorney, issuing citations and warnings to motorists on the highways,” he continued.
Komie says you don’t even see scenarios like this on TV in “Law and Order.” “Jack never becomes the chief of police, he’s always the district attorney.”
Belt and suspenders
Towne said the SAFE team is unique, but not illegal, due in large part to how the officers are sworn.
When team members operate, they do so within the jurisdictions of local police departments. They also are not only sworn by Towne, but also sworn by the local police chief of the area of jurisdiction they are working in.
For example, when the SAFE team partners with the city of La Salle, they are doing so to patrol strictly the areas of Interstate 80 and Interstate 39 that run through the city’s jurisdiction. Before the start of operations, La Salle police chief Rob Uranich swears in the SAFE Team officers.
“We do that as a belt and suspenders approach to make absolutely certain we were operating under the law,” Towne said.
The SAFE team’s future
Attorney Louis Bertrand of La Salle represented Pirro and Flynn in their cases and shared the news of the Appellate Court ruling with them.
“I get calls from them every day. I told them they should be overjoyed with the court’s opinion. All of them were looking at certain prison time, had this evidence not been suppressed and had this decision not upheld the county court’s ruling,” Bertrand said.
“I believe it’s an unequivocal, very forceful opinion,” Bertrand continued, calling it “a clear indication that what the state was involved in on the interstate … was clearly not authorized by

this statute.”
However, Bertrand said he advised his clients that he expected Towne to file an appeal.
“I do not know if the supreme court will accept this case as one they will listen to, but if they do, I expect the same outcome,” Bertrand said.
The Illinois Supreme Court will not reconvene until the fall.
In the meantime, Towne said the success of the SAFE Team — which has taken $8 million of drugs, cash and valuables off the street, along with a member of al-Qaida, a Russian mobster and a Seattle-based murderer — and his assertion that it is legal, means it will continue to operate during the appeals process.
“We are needed and we will be out there and continue to do our job,” he said.

Representative Cases

Bertrand Law Office P.C.

11/2/2013 6:00:00 AM
More illegal drug cases thrown out
County's SAFE Team problems cause two more case dismissals


Tom Collins
NewsTribune Senior Reporter

OTTAWA — When drug suspect Cara Ringland got her marijuana seizure thrown out — thanks to a paperwork problem with the arresting officer — other defense lawyers figured to take notice.
They have Two more drug seizures conducted by the La Salle County State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement (SAFE) Team have been challenged and gutted on the grounds that agent Jeff Gaither’s papers and fingerprints hadn’t been processed when he made the busts.
Friday, another motion-to-suppress was granted over Gaither’s disputed credentials: The methamphetamine case against James Saxen, 47, of Winton, Calif. 
Another suppression order was granted last week in the cannabis case against Steven Pirro, 58, of Sandy, Utah.
Both remain charged; neither has been exonerated or freed. 
However, in both cases the traffic stops were initiated by Gaither during a period when his prints and papers still were pending before the board that screens police officers for duty.
Gaither was no green recruit from the police academy. Prior to joining the SAFE Team, he had a long and distinguished career with state police and had long since filed his papers for that post. 
In the Ringland case, Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. ruled the arrest was nullified because Gaither was not, technically, cleared for duty with the SAFE Team. The Ringland case is on appeal. 
The Saxen and Pirro cases have not yet been appealed. However, prosecutors and defense attorneys may agree to bundle the cases with Ringland’s so the 3rd District Appellate Court can settle the Gaither question, and all associated cases, once and for all. 
With respect to Ringland, the appellate prosecutor thinks Ryan was wrong and that Gaither was, for all intents and purposes, authorized to patrol the road. 
Appellate prosecutor Judith Kelly argued in a recent filing that Ryan could have, and should have, given Gaither some wiggle room in light of the fact that his prints and credentials already were on file from his state police days. 
The Ringland stop, Kelly said, shouldn’t be nullified just because there wasn’t a duplicate set of prints and papers on file. 
Ringland and her lawyer are scheduled to submit a reply brief to the appellate court by Nov. 27. The appellate justices are expected to hold oral arguments and to render a decision, but not until 2014.

10/31/2013 5:36:00 AM
Jury convicts man of heroin delivery, but acquits him on firearm charge


Tom Collins
NewsTribune Senior Reporter

OTTAWA — An Ottawa man was convicted Wednesday of a heroin delivery, but was spared a much longer prison sentence when a jury rejected an accompanying charge of armed violence.
Thomas J. Higgins, 36, of 617 Webster St. is likely headed to prison when he is sentenced Dec. 26 before Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. A jury convicted him of one count of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance (heroin), a Class 2 felony carrying an extended prison sentence of 3-14 years.
Higgins, however, has cause to be relieved. He was acquitted of a much more serious charge of armed violence, a Class X felony carrying 15-60 years, for allegedly using a 9-mm pistol during the drug exchange.
Higgins and La Salle defense attorney Louis Bertrand persuaded the jury there was no gun involved.

“He was convicted of a delivery he committed and was guilty of,” Bertrand said after the verdict, “and was found not guilty of the armed violence charge, which is a crime he did not commit.
“I commend this jury and the jury system.”
Higgins was charged Jan. 17 after he delivered less than a gram of heroin to a confidential informant working with the Tri-County Drug Enforcement Narcotics Team. TRI-DENT reported they later seized from Higgins a loaded handgun plus additional magazines; but the jury accepted that the firearm was not on him during the commission of the drug exchange.

8/16/2013 9:09:00 AM
Jury acquits man of hauling pot


Tom Collins
NewsTribune Senior Reporter

OTTAWA — An upstate New York man was acquitted this week of transporting 143 pounds of marijuana seized last autumn.
Raamah Cush Bonilla, 38, of Buffalo, N.Y., was charged with unlawful possession of cannabis with intent to deliver at 2:59 a.m. Sept. 27, 2012 on Interstate 80 eastbound near Route 351 in La Salle, police said.

Police stopped a 2013 GMC Yukon and a La Salle police K-9 unit performed a free air sniff of the vehicle exterior and alerted to the vehicle, police said. A probable cause search was conducted and revealed eight cardboard boxes containing suspected cannabis, police said. 
Bonilla could have faced up to 30 years in prison.

However, a La Salle County jury deliberated five hours following a three-day trial and acquitted Bonilla.
During the trial Bonilla, a corrections officer, maintained that he had no knowledge of the presence of the cannabis. He testified that he was induced to travel from New York to Oregon under the pretense of transporting the belongings of an ailing man back to New York.
A jury accepted that defense and handed down an acquittal.
“The story that Chris (Bonilla) told the jury was exactly the same story he told me when I was retained to represent him many months ago and that story has never changed,” La Salle defense attorney Louis Bertrand said. “I believed him then, and I am glad that the jury believed him at the trial.”
Chief deputy assistant La Salle County state’s attorney Brian Vescogni declined comment on the verdict.

Criminal Law

12/10/2012 2:36:00 PM
Charges dismissed in drug case against California resident, 62

NT Staff


The La Salle County State’s Attorney’s Office has dismissed felony charges against a California man who had been charged in January with hauling 15 pounds of purported cannabis. 
Joseph M. Travis, 62, of 223 N. Oregon St., Yreka, Calif., had his felony cannabis charges dismissed Thursday. 
Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. previously had ruled in favor of Travis and La Salle defense attorney Louis Bertrand, who challenged the validity of Travis’ traffic stop.

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