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Criminal Law FLASHPOINTS May 2020

May 15, 2020Print This Post Print This Post

Matthew R. Leisten, Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office, Rockford
815-319-4700 | E-mail Matthew R. Leisten

Supreme Court Rules on Eyewitness Testimony on Firearms

In People v. McLaurin, 2020 IL 124563, the Illinois Supreme Court addressed what amount of evidence is sufficient for a trier of fact to find that a firearm is in fact a firearm. In McLaurin, the defendant was convicted of being an armed habitual criminal after a bench trial. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶1. The appellate court had reversed the conviction and held that the state’s evidence was insufficient to prove that that he possessed a firearm as defined by the Criminal Code of 2012, 720 ILCS 5/1-1, et seq. People v. McLaurin, 2018 IL App (1st) 170258, ¶31, 122 N.E.3d 788, 428 Ill.Dec. 527. The Supreme Court subsequently reversed the appellate court’s ruling and reinstated the conviction.

At trial, Chicago Police Sergeant Fraction testified that she was conducting surveillance on an apartment building and that she saw the defendant leave the building carrying a silver handgun. She explained that she had an unobstructed view and was approximately 50 feet away from him. Sergeant Fraction observed the defendant cross the street and enter the rear of a van, which then drove away. She followed the van, and the van was stopped by police a block and a half later. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶4.

The defendant and the other occupants were ordered out of the van. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶5. Another officer recovered a 9mm chrome handgun that was underneath the van. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶8. Sergeant Fraction described the recovered 9mm handgun as being the same size and same color of the gun that she saw the defendant enter the van with. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶5. She testified that she was familiar with firearms, carried a handgun herself, and worked with handguns during her 12 years of experience as a police officer. Id.

The state did not offer the actual 9mm handgun into evidence at trial. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶8.

The appellate court reversed the armed habitual criminal conviction because it found that Sergeant Fraction’s testimony, standing alone, was insufficient for the state to meet its burden of proof that the item qualified as a firearm as defined by statute. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶17. (See the Firearm Owners Identification Card Act (FOID Act), 430 ILCS 65/1.1, defining a firearm as “any device . . . designed to expel a projectile . . . by the action of an explosion, expansion of gas or escape of gas” and specifically excluding “pneumatic gun[s], spring gun[s], paint ball gun[s], and B-B gun[s].”)

In its analysis, the Supreme Court summarized its previous holdings in regard to the sufficiency of witness testimony on firearms and other kinds of weapons. The first case it addressed was People v. Washington, 2012 IL 107993, 969 N.E.2d 349, 360 Ill.Dec. 539. In Washington, the Supreme Court held that a victim’s testimony was sufficient to sustain belief that a defendant possessed a real gun when he testified that the defendant pointed a gun at him, forced him into a truck, and held a gun to his head while he sat between the defendant and an accomplice. The Supreme Court found in that case that a jury could have reasonably inferred that the defendant possessed a real gun considering that the victim had an unobstructed view of the gun for several minutes. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶26, quoting Washington, supra, 2012 IL 107993 at ¶36.

Next, the Supreme Court revisited People v. Ross, 229 Ill.2d 255, 891 N.E.2d 865, 322 Ill.Dec. 574 (2008), in which it held that a small BB gun was not a dangerous weapon when it was not loaded, it was not used as a bludgeon, and there was no evidence about its weight or composition. Therefore, the court found that the “gun” used in a robbery was insufficient to establish that it was a “a dangerous weapon.” 2020 IL 124563 at ¶28, quoting Ross, supra, 891 N.E.2d at 879.

The last case the Supreme Court looked to for guidance was People v. Wright, 2017 IL 119561, 91 N.E.3d 826, 418 Ill.Dec. 866. In Wright, the court held that the evidence was sufficient to find that a codefendant was armed with a firearm during a robbery when one of the victims testified that the codefendant said, “this is a robbery,” and revealed what looked like a black automatic handgun under his hoodie. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶30, quoting Wright, supra, 2017 IL 119561 at ¶76. The victim thought the gun was a semiautomatic based on his experience with firing guns, felt what he thought was the barrel of a gun on his back while being walked back to his office, and said he was “100% sure” that the weapon was an actual firearm. Id. Another victim testified to seeing the gun handle in the waistband of the defendant’s pants, while a third victim testified about seeing guns before and believed the gun was a “9 millimeter pistol.” Id.

After addressing its precedent, the McLaurin court reiterated that the armed robbery statute required that a “firearm” meet the definition of a “firearm” according to the FOID Act, and therefore the same requirement applied for the armed habitual criminal charge. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶31. As a result, the court held that the appellate court erred in holding to the contrary. Id.

The McLaurin Court ultimately found that the evidence was sufficient to find that the gun found underneath the van was in fact a firearm. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶¶33 – 38. The court based this conclusion on Sergeant Fraction’s unimpeached testimony that she saw the defendant exit the apartment building carrying a silver handgun while being 50 feet away from him with an obstructed view. The court also noted that Sergeant Fraction testified that the 9mm gun underneath the van was the same color and size as the gun that she saw the defendant carrying to the van. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶34.

The court noted that although the defendant argued that Sergeant Fraction was unable to describe the gun in any meaningful way and could not say whether it was a revolver or a semiautomatic, the court concluded that under Washington and Wright a rational trier of fact could infer that the defendant possessed a “firearm” as defined by the FOID Act. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶35.

Finally, the court noted that the state took a risk by not submitting the 9mm gun into evidence. 2020 IL 124563 at ¶32. Although the opinion does not say why the state chose not to enter the gun into evidence, the physical gun’s absence at trial created unnecessary risks and arguments that would have been prevented by the submission of the 9mm gun into evidence. This is especially true in situations in which photographs were not taken of a gun’s location at a traffic stop or in a residence. Defense attorneys can also see a physical gun beforehand to ensure that the gun is in fact a real firearm and not a BB gun, a fake plastic gun (some of which can appear to be real firearms), or one of the other excluded weapons in the FOID Act.

For more information about criminal law, see FEDERAL CRIMINAL PRACTICE (IICLE®, 2019). Online Library subscribers can view it for free by clicking here. If you don’t currently subscribe to the Online Library, visit www.iicle.com/subscriptions.


 

Sergio Lopez, Second-Year Law Student, DePaul University College of Law, Chicago
Sami Azhari, Azhari LLC, Chicago & Rolling Meadows
847-255-2100 | E-mail Sami Azhari

Supreme Court Remand Raises Questions of Jurisprudential Implications on Criminal Law

The Illinois Supreme Court made a sua sponte ruling from the bench, finding it lacked jurisdiction to hear a direct appeal of a constitutional challenge to the state’s Firearm Owners Identification Card Act (FOID Act), 430 ILCS 65/0.01, et seq. People v. Brown, 2020 IL 124100. This ruling stemmed from a case initially adjudicated by the Circuit Court of White County, which held that the statute at issue, 430 ILCS 65/2(a)(1), was unconstitutional as it applied to the defendant. The state then appealed.

Instead of addressing the question of constitutionality, however, the Illinois Supreme Court decided to vacate the judgment of the circuit court and ordered that the judgment be “modified to exclude the ruling that section 2(a)(1) [of the FOID Act] is unconstitutional.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶36. Thus, the court ruled, in essence, that because the trial court cited both a constitutional and a nonconstitutional rationale for dismissing the case, the constitutional argument cannot be the basis for direct Supreme Court review. The Illinois Supreme Court made the ruling despite the fact that neither party made a nonconstitutional argument.

In the dissent, Justice Karmeier disagreed that the court lacked jurisdiction to hear the appeal, stating that “[t]he majority’s decision resolves this appeal based on an issue no one has raised, decides the issue through misapplication of principles we have no reason to discuss, and remands the case to the circuit court for entry of an order that is clearly meritless and serves no purpose.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶39. This ruling raises two questions: (1) What are the limits of statutory interpretation? (2) Is it appropriate or economical for a court to decide a case based on an argument that neither party has raised?

Facts

The undisputed facts before the circuit court were that police arrived at the defendant’s home after receiving a call that she was shooting a gun in her home. While investigating the defendant’s home, police located a bolt-action rifle in her bedroom. The defendant denied having fired the rifle and “the officers found no evidence that this rifle, or any other gun, had been fired in the home.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶5. The defendant, however, did not possess a FOID card. After reviewing the incident report, the state’s attorney’s office charged the defendant with violating the FOID Act. Id.

Specifically, the FOID Act provides that “[n]o person may acquire or possess any firearm, stun gun, or taser within this State without having in his or her possession a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card previously issued in his or her name by the Department of State Police under the provisions of this Act.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶54, quoting 430 ILCS 65/2(a)(1). At trial, the defendant argued that the FOID Act was unconstitutional as applied to her case and contended that, because she otherwise would have qualified for receipt of a FOID card, requiring her to apply and pay for the card would be a violation of both the Illinois and United States Constitutions. 2020 IL 124100 at ¶9.

The circuit court held that

requiring defendant to “fill out a form, provide a picture ID and pay a $10 fee to obtain a FOID card before she can exercise her constitutional right to self-defense with a firearm” in her home violated the second amendment to the United States Constitution as applied to the states through the fourteenth amendment (U.S.Const., amends. II, XIV), as well as article I, section 22, of the Illinois Constitution of 1970 (Ill.Const. 1970, art. I, §22). 2020 IL 124100 at ¶9.

After having its motion to reconsider denied, the state appealed. Id.

Instead of ruling on the issue on appeal — the constitutionality of the FOID Act — the Illinois Supreme Court remanded the case and instructed that an evidentiary hearing be held, noting that “essential factual matters remained unresolved.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶33. The dissenting opinion, however, made note that “[i]t is true that the State pointed to some factual gaps in its motion to reconsider and at the hearing on that motion. Significantly, however, it is not complaining about such gaps now, and they are not the basis for its appeal before our court.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶62. Additionally, the dissent noted: “The circuit court’s dismissal order recited that the facts were undisputed, and that finding has not been challenged by the parties on appeal.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶65.

The majority’s decision, however, highlights the question of the authority of a court to issue a sua sponte ruling. If a trial court makes a sua sponte argument, it normally gives the attorneys an opportunity to respond or even brief the issue. However, in this case, a sua sponte ruling from the Illinois Supreme Court seems to be a one-way street — there was no evident opportunity to respond or ask the Supreme Court to reconsider a remand without addressing the issue of constitutionality. The basis for this kind of ruling is that of judicial economy: if a court is able to resolve a dispute without the need to strike an entire statute, it should do so, even if neither party has raised such an argument on its own. Consequently, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike must be cognizant of a court’s ability to examine more than just the plain language of a statute when considering its constitutionality.

The Illinois Supreme Court denied reaching the question of constitutionality, instead taking issue with the circuit court’s conformity with Illinois Supreme Court Rules regarding unconstitutional rulings. On review of its own jurisdiction, the court acknowledged that Illinois Supreme Court Rule 603 states that “[a]ppeals in criminal cases in which a statute of the United States or of this State has been held invalid shall lie directly to the Supreme Court as a matter of right.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶18.

Upon review of the trial opinion, the court determined that the circuit court had failed to meet the necessary requirements for a ruling of “unconstitutional” — specifically, that “when the circuit court provides an alternative, nonconstitutional basis for relief, direct appeal cannot lie in this court.” 2020 IL 124100 at ¶19, citing Trent v. Winningham, 172 Ill.2d 420, 667 N.E.2d 1317, 217 Ill.Dec. 741 (1996), and Hearne v. Illinois State Board of Education, 185 Ill.2d 443, 706 N.E.2d 886, 236 Ill.Dec. 12 (1999). The “alternative” that the court refers to is a sentence from the circuit court’s opinion, which states: “As an alternative, if [§2(a)(1) of the FOID Act] is constitutional then it becomes obvious the legislature did not intend the statute to apply in one’s own home due to impossibility of compliance.” Brown, supra, 2020 IL 124100 at ¶14.

As addressed by the dissent in the Supreme Court’s opinion:

The language of the [FOID Act] is clear and unambiguous. There is no exception, here or in any other provision of the Act, for possession of the firearm, stun gun, or taser within one’s home. To read the law as inapplicable to possession within the home, thereby avoiding any challenge to the constitutionality of the law as applied in that circumstance, would therefore require the court to depart from the plain language and meaning of the statute and read into it an exception, limitation, or condition the legislature did not express. 2020 IL 124100 at ¶54.

The question of the extent of a court’s ability to interpret a statute is not novel, but it is certainly significant. For example, differing principles of jurisprudence are commonly highlighted in opinions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court, with the question constantly being raised as to what the appropriate method is (or should be) for judicial interpretation of legislation.

But what does it mean for criminal law when courts are willing to essentially read into statutes exceptions that allow defendants a relief that is otherwise unwritten? In the case at issue, if one accepts the Illinois Supreme Court’s holding that the circuit court provided an acceptable “alternative” interpretation of the statute that bars the courts from reaching a decision on the constitutionality of the law, how would the defendant or prosecutor have known whether the FOID Act applies to possession in the defendant’s own home? Although the defendant raised this exact argument at trial, there is no such codified exception to the Act. Even if a statute, as written, fails against the defendant’s constitutional defense, the Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling emphasizes a deference to a presumption of constitutionality by reviewing alternative interpretations of the statute that provide resolution without a need to strike down the law.

Conclusion

Rather than ruling on the issue of constitutionality, the Illinois Supreme Court remanded the case so that it may proceed through the normal appellate process on a wholly nonconstitutional issue — a ruling founded in the appellate court’s brief analysis of the legislative intent of the statute at issue. Certainly, this has serious implications for prosecutors and defendants alike. Although prosecutors may spend resources pursuing convictions for violations of written criminal statutes, they should be cognizant of the court’s ability to interpret the statute to include an unwritten exception providing relief for a defendant by a review of legislative intent. Similarly, although defendants prepare defenses and counterarguments to the prosecution’s contentions, they should be equally cognizant of the court’s ability to resolve a matter sua sponte.

For more information about criminal law, see FEDERAL CRIMINAL PRACTICE (IICLE®, 2019). Online Library subscribers can view it for free by clicking here. If you don’t currently subscribe to the Online Library, visit www.iicle.com/subscriptions.

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