Supreme Court reverses Fifth District, reinstates attorney's conviction for driving on suspended license

By Bethany Krajelis | Jan 24, 2014

Reversing the appellate court, the Illinois Supreme Court today upheld an East Alton attorney’s conviction for driving on a suspended license.

In an eight-page opinion written by Justice Robert Thomas, the high court focused its analysis in People v. David K. Elliott on the definition of the word “rescind” in the statutory summary suspension statute of the state’s Vehicle Code.

With little guidance from the legislature and not much help from dictionaries, the justices determined that “a prospective-only reading of ‘rescind’ best comports with” public policy and other provisions of the Code relating to statutory summary suspensions, as well their presumption that lawmakers don’t intend to create absurd, inconvenient or unjust results when enacting statutes.

After reaching that conclusion, the Supreme Court reversed the ruling of the Fifth District Appellate Court that overturned the lower court and reinstated the defendant’s conviction for driving on a suspended license.

In November 2010, David Elliott, a law student at the time who is now an attorney at Tomerlin Law Office in East Alton, was convicted of driving on a suspension license based on two traffic stops that occurred between August and October 2009.

The first stop resulted in a Jackson County notice of statutory summary suspension after Elliott refused to submit to testing for driving under the influence. The notice stated his license would be suspended in 46 days.

Elliott then filed a petition for recession of statutory summary suspension under the Vehicle Code, which allows drivers to petition the court for a hearing to contest the suspension within 90 days of notice and requires the court to hold a hearing within 30 days of the petition or the first appearance date for the DUI citation.

Elliott’s suspension commenced on Oct. 11, 2009 and after two delays, the circuit court heard his petition on Oct. 19, 2009, granted his request and ordered the recession of the suspension.

After his suspension took effect and before the hearing, however, Elliot was issued a citation in Perry County on Oct. 13, 2009 for driving on a suspended license.

He sought the dismissal of the citation, arguing that the court’s order to rescind his statutory summary suspension voided the legal basis for the citation, and as such, had to be dismissed.

The circuit court rejected his argument and after a bench trial, found Elliott guilty of driving on a suspended license.

He appealed to the Fifth District and in November 2012, a panel made up of Justices Richard Goldenhersh, Thomas Welch and Melissa Chapman reversed the lower court and vacated Elliott’s conviction.

The appellate court focused its analysis on the statutory summary suspension statute, Section 2-118.1 of the Vehicle Code, which states that trial courts hearing petitions to rescind have two possible options: to sustain or rescind the suspension, as well as the meaning of “rescind.”

“The act of rescinding is not simply to terminate,” Goldenhersh wrote for the panel. “Both common usage and the operation of the term in legal proceedings impute an intention to undo an action so that it never existed.”

Acknowledging a conflict on the issue among the appellate districts, the panel determined that “even though the suspension commenced shortly before the citation was issued, … the rescission of the suspension constituted a finding that the suspension was void from its inception.

The state then appealed to the Supreme Court, which today held that the circuit court’s subsequent rescission order did not render Elliot’s driving on a suspended license charge invalid.

Noting that the issue in Elliott’s case is one of statutory construction, Thomas wrote that the court had to determine what the legislature intended when it used the term “rescind” in the statutory summary suspension statute of the Vehicle Code,

“Unfortunately, the legislature provides us with little guidance on this question,” Thomas wrote, adding that while “section 1 of the Code contains an extensive catalog of defined terms, ‘rescind’ is not among them.”

Thomas wrote the term “rescind” has “numerous meanings both inside and outside the legal context” depending on context, which left the court with “no choice but to consider the range of possible definitions” and then figure out which ones fit best with the public policy purpose of the statute.

Turning to Webster’s Dictionary, Thomas wrote that the term at the crux of Elliott’s case can have prospective and retroactive meanings as it “defines ‘rescind’ as both ‘to do away with: take away: remove’ and ‘to abrogate (a contract) by tendering back of restoring to the opposite party what one has received from him.”

In addition, Thomas pointed to Black’s Law Dictionary, which “defines ‘rescind’ both as ‘abrogate,’ a term that suggests retroactive effect, and ‘cancel,’ a term that suggests prospective effect.”

“In short,” he wrote, “rather than resolve the issue at hand, the dictionaries simply underscore the problem.”

The justices ran into the same problem when looking at how the legislature has used the term at issue in other statutes.

Thomas noted that the use of “rescind” takes on a retroactive meaning in Section 5(b) of the state’s Life Care Facilities Act, but a prospective meaning in the section of the Code of Criminal Procedure that deals with authorization for  law enforcement use of eavesdropping devices.

Based on the context of the law at issue in Elliott’s case, Thomas wrote that he and his colleagues “are convinced” the legislature intended the term to take on a prospective meaning in the statutory summary suspension statute.

First, Thomas explained, a prospective-only meaning of “rescind” is the only way to uphold the purpose of the statutory summary suspension, which is “to ensure drivers charged with DUI are removed from the roads not just hopefully or eventually, but certainly and swiftly.”

Second, the court determined that a prospective reading of the term fits best with other provisions of the Vehicle Code dealing with suspensions, such as a section that states “a pending petition to rescind ‘shall not stay or delay the statutory summary suspension.’”

And lastly, Thomas explained that a prospective take on “rescind” makes sense when it comes to the court’s presumption that the legislature doesn’t intend to enact laws that “create absurd, inconvenient or unjust results.”

“A prospective-only reading of ‘rescind’ makes this legislative scheme very easy and very convenient to enforce, as there is only one question to ask–what was the actual status of the driver’s license at the time of the arrest, valid or suspended?” he wrote for the court.

“By contrast,” he added that in the context of the statute at issue, “a retroactive reading of ‘rescind’ introduces both inefficiency and uncertainty into the system, thereby making the enforcement and administration of this very same legislative scheme highly inconvenient.”

East Alton attorney Edward Unsell represented Elliott and Josh Schneider of the Illinois Attorney General’s office represented the state in arguments before the high court.

The Supreme Court also issued opinions today in People v. Billy McChriston; Gillespie Community Unit School District No. 7, etc., v. Wight & Company, etc.; People v. Christopher B. Bailey; People v. Peter Hommerson; and In re S.L.

All of the opinions can be found on the court's website at

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