The Illinois Supreme Court upheld the Third District Appellate Court’s decision that the La Salle County State’s Attorney’s Felony Enforcement (SAFE) unit does not have the authority to conduct traffic stops and make arrests as part of independent drug investigations. 

Modeled after La Salle’s team, Madison County’s own drug trafficking investigation unit was set up in late 2014. By June 2015 – one month after State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons’ team began training – the Third District Appellate Court found that the La Salle program was not supported by law. 

Gibbons’ team was put on hold while the state’s Supreme Court reviewed the legality of the program. 

Gibbons had previously told the Record that he hoped the Supreme Court would reverse the appellate court decision.

“The Madison County SAFE team was created as part of the continued, proactive response to the heroin epidemic in Madison County,” Gibbons said. 

Of the state’s 102 counties, La Salle and Madison Counties were the only two to establish the program. 

Justice Charles Freeman delivered the June 29 opinion affirming the lower court’s La Salle ruling, with Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Robert Thomas, Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis concurring. 

“We conclude that the State’s Attorney’s common-law duty to investigate suspected illegal activity is limited to circumstances where other law enforcement agencies inadequately deal with such investigation or where a law enforcement agency asks the State’s Attorney for assistance,” Freeman wrote. 

Justice Rita Garman wrote the dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Thomas Kilbride.

“In sum, the State’s Attorney has the duty to investigate suspected illegal activity, and until today, that duty had not been limited to circumstances in which a law enforcement agency has failed to adequately address the situation or in which a law enforcement agency requests assistance. Neither our common law nor our statutory law supports these restrictions. For this reason, I respectfully dissent,” Garman wrote. 

Defendants Cara Ringland, Steven Pirro, James Saxen, Steven Harris and Matthew Flynn were separately charged with felony drug charges in the La Salle County Circuit Court after Jeffrey Gaither, a special investigator for the State’s Attorney, conducted a traffic stop against each defendant on Interstate 80. The traffic stops occurred from Jan. 31, 2012, through March 12, 2013. 

Gaither was appointed to the SAFE unit by Brian Towne, then State’s Attorney of La Salle County. 

Each traffic stop resulted in the discovery of a controlled substance. 

Ringland, Pirro and Flynn were each charged with felony possession with intent to deliver cannabis. Harris and Saxen were charged with felony possession with intent to deliver cocaine and methamphetamine. 

Each defendant filed a motion to quash arrest and suppress evidence alleging Gaither lacked the authority to conduct a traffic stop. 

Specifically, Ringland, Harris and Saxen alleged Gaither lacked authority because Towne failed to comply with section 3-9005(b)’s mandatory procedures in hiring Gaither and, alternatively, that it did not authorize Gaither to conduct traffic stops.

Towne testified that in late 2011, he formed a team of special investigators, which he named the State’s Attorney’s Felony Enforcement (SAFE) unit. The La Salle team was the first SAFE unit formed. 

“Towne authorized the SAFE unit to operate on the Interstate‘[t]hrough the statute for the duties and powers of the State’s Attorney,’” the opinion explains. 

Gaither was sworn in as a SAFE investigator on Jan. 21, 2012. He received paychecks from La Salle County and said he was an employee of the State’s Attorney. He never took an oath as a deputy sheriff or from the county in any regard. 

Gaither was provided a Ford Explorer equipped with emergency lights and a video camera, which was used to make traffic stops. 

He also testified that when a SAFE investigator made a traffic stop, a drug-detection canine unit would automatically proceed to that location. 

The circuit court granted each defendant’s motion to suppress, finding that section 3-9005(b) required strict compliance with its background verification procedures prior to Gaither’s appointment.

The section states: The State’s Attorney of each county shall have authority to appoint one or more special investigators to (1) serve subpoenas, (2) make return of process and (3) conduct investigations which assist the State’s Attorney in the performance of his duties.

The circuit court found that these requirements were not met, and Gaither lacked the authority to conduct traffic stops.

The state appealed each suppression order, and the appellate court consolidated the cases for review. 

The appellate court agreed that Gaither lacked the authority to conduct traffic stops, but based its conclusion on the finding that the conduct of the SAFE union and Gaither exceeded the scope of section 3-9005(b). 

The Illinois Attorney General, the State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor and Towne filed a petition for leave to appeal on Aug. 16, 2015. 

In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the state argued that section 3-9005(b)authorized Towne to create the SAFE unit and empower his special investigators to conduct traffic stops.

Freeman wrote that based on the plain language of the statute, the appellate court correctly observed that the list limits investigation authorization to those that assist a State’s Attorney in the performance of his or her duties.

Freeman explained that both Towne and Gaither testified that SAFE investigators did not serve subpoenas, make return of process, or investigate pending cases. 

“Thus, to be valid, the instant traffic stops, by themselves, must constitute investigations that assist a State’s Attorney in the performance of his or her duties,” Freeman wrote. 

The appellate court had previously concluded that “The prosecution of drug dealers and traffickers is indisputably a duty of the State’s Attorney; outfitting his own drug interdiction unit is not.”

The Supreme Court added that nowhere does section 3-9005(b) allow a State’s Attorney to patrol the highways, engage in law enforcement and conduct drug interdiction. 

However, the state argued that a State’s Attorney’s duty to investigate is found in common law.

“Before this court, the State argues that the execution of traffic stops by the SAFE unit assists the State’s Attorney in his or her common-law duty to investigate suspected illegal activity.

However, Freeman wrote that “close analysis of the State’s Attorney’s common-law duty to investigate suspected illegal activity reveals a significant limitation on its exercise. The State’s Attorney’s duty to investigate suspected illegal activity acknowledges that a prosecutor ordinarily relies on police and other agencies for investigation of criminal acts.”

“Clearly, the State’s Attorney’s common-law duty to investigate suspected illegal activity is premised on a deference to law enforcement agencies,” he added. 

In her dissent, Garman argued that the majority opinion “restricts the State’s Attorney’s duty to investigate suspected illegal activity to situations in which ‘other law enforcement agencies inadequately deal with such investigation [citation] or where a law enforcement agency asks the State’s Attorney for assistance.’”

Garman argued that it is the State’s Attorney’s duty to investigate suspected illegal activity.

Towne testified that he intended to use the SAFE unit to investigate drug trafficking on Interstate 80. 

Garman also wrote that the majority opinion fails to address how these restrictions would impact the ability of the State’s Attorney to rely on the investigatory powers of the grand jury.

“To the extent the majority suggests its novel restriction applies only in circumstances involving law enforcement or the exercise of peace officer powers, there is no support in our common law for restraining the common-law duties of the State’s Attorney based on different types of investigations. 

“Nor is there any support in section 3-9005(b), which spells out the powers of special investigators, for limiting the exercise of peace officer powers based on the request or failure of other agencies,” Garman wrote. 

She also argued that the majority’s contention that each State’s Attorney would be able to create his or her own police force is baseless. 

“The consolidated cases at issue involved only stops within the scope of the SAFE unit’s assignment to investigate trafficking on the highways of La Salle County. Holding that the stops were valid would not authorize State’s Attorneys to create police forces with broad powers,” she wrote. 

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