CHICAGO – Two men who spent nine months each in LaSalle County jail under $1 million bond seek damages from former state’s attorney Brian Towne, creator of a fake police squad that arrested them.
Matthew Flynn of Massachusetts and Steven Pirro of Utah sued Towne, three squad members, and LaSalle County in U.S. district court on Jan. 23.
Attorney Louis Bertrand of LaSalle wrote for Flynn and Pirro that defendants acted under color of law – through a program labeled the State’s Attorney’s Felony Enforcement (SAFE) that was later declared unlawful by the state supreme court - to deprive them of rights under the U.S. and Illinois Constitutions.
Bertrand wrote that on Jan. 14, 2013, while Pirro traveled eastbound on Interstate 80, defendant Jeffery Gaither stopped him and represented himself to be a law enforcement officer with legal authority to stop, search and arrest persons.
The complaint states that an investigator arrived with a canine and represented to Pirro that the canine alerted to the presence of contraband. A search of the vehicle resulted in detection of 50 sealed bundles of cannabis.
At a police station, defendant Edward Jauch interviewed Pirro, and subsequently charged him with a Class One felony. Pirro couldn’t post bond, the complaint states.
LaSalle County Circuit Judge Chris Ryan on Oct. 23, 2013 granted a motion to suppress the evidence and quash the arrest.
Bertrand wrote that Ryan found that Gaither and Jauch weren’t properly appointed and credentialed pursuant to state law.
On Nov. 1, 2013, Pirro was released and returned to Utah, “and thereafter has remained out of custody,” the complaint states.
In Flynn’s case, the driver of a car he was traveling in as a passenger eastbound on I-80 on March 12, 2013 was stopped by Gaither. Investigator Daniel Gillette arrived with a canine, the vehicle was searched and 50 bundles of sealed cannabis was detected.
Bertrand wrote that Jauch interviewed Flynn, who was then charged with a Class One felony. He too could not post bond, the complaint states.
LaSalle County Associate Judge Dan Bute on Nov. 27, 2013 granted a motion to suppress the evidence and quash the arrest.
Bertrand wrote that Bute found that Gaither, Gillette and Jauch were not properly appointed and credentialed pursuant to state law.
Flynn was released on Dec. 5, 2013, returned to Massachusetts, “and thereafter has remained out of custody,” the complaint states.
The Third District Appellate Court affirmed the judges in 2015, finding state law did not authorize Towne to equip investigators with squad cars and ticket books.
The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed the Third District in 2017.
Because the Justices decided the case on state law, they didn’t address the constitutional issues that Flynn and Pirro raise.
Bertrand wrote that their stopping, detaining, interrogation, interview, arrest, charging, prosecution, and incarceration violated their rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“Plaintiffs have a legal right to freely travel within and through the state of Illinois,” Bertrand wrote.
Flynn and Pirro seek compensation for wrongful detention and incarceration, loss of wages and opportunities, emotional distress, and mental suffering.
Bertrand wrote that LaSalle County is liable for any judgments against any named defendant for compensatory and punitive damages.
He wrote that Gaither, Gillette and Jauch performed all acts and omissions in the complaint with authority from Towne and the county.
Towne faces two other civil suits and 17 criminal indictments.
One suit proposes a class action for everyone the squad arrested.
The other alleges that Towne engaged in malicious prosecution that caused the wrongful death of local resident Danny French.
The indictments allege official misconduct, mostly in Towne’s spending of funds from forfeitures in drug cases including the arrests on I-80.
LaSalle County voters defeated Towne’s bid for another term in 2016.
While he held the office, he also held the position of board chairman for the Illinois State’s Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor.
That agency provided $43,000 to advance the I-80 project.
Madison County State’s Attorney Tom Gibbons set up a team in late 2014, modeled after the LaSalle County program, but suspended it while it was under court review and disbanded it after the Illinois Supreme Court declared it unlawful. Of the state's 102 counties, these two are the only ones to establish the program.
According to a county official, Gibbons spent $120,000 on the program.
In an earlier interview, Gibbons told the Record his team had made no arrests or seizures.