CHICAGO – Individuals who served sentences and forfeited cash pursuant to arrests by a fake police squad on Interstate 80 sued the LaSalle County board and former state’s attorney Brian Towne in U.S. district court on April 5.
Plaintiff counsel Patrick Flanagan of Elgin alleged constitutional violations, racketeering, conspiracy, and fraud on the part of Towne and others.
“Defendants did not have warrants, probable cause or any other legal justification to detain and arrest plaintiffs,” he wrote.
A class action is proposed for all persons with non-Illinois license plates who were stopped by the “state’s attorney’s felony enforcement unit,” or SAFE.
The suit claims that among 918 arrests that SAFE made from 2011 to 2015, only six involved vehicles with Illinois plates, and none of those drivers received a traffic citation other than a warning ticket for minor violations.
“SAFE profited by the illegal corrupt stops on Interstate 80 through the forfeiture of money and property seized during the stops,” Flanagan wrote.
The suit seeks triple damages under civil provisions of racketeering law.
Flanagan wrote that a statute of limitations hadn’t run because plaintiffs didn’t know and couldn’t have known that defendants weren’t acting under the color of law. He argues that they discovered it last year, after the Illinois Supreme Court held that Towne exceeded the scope of his office.
Towne had left the office by then, by decision of county voters in 2016.
According to the lawsuit, Towne “formulated the idea of operating his own police department under his office as LaSalle County state’s attorney in order to generate income for the LaSalle County state’s attorney’s office.”
SAFE members presented themselves as police officers and in some cases identified themselves as Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, the suit claims.
Within minutes of a stop, a canine officer from a nearby police department would arrive and conduct a sniff inside the vehicle.
The suit alleges that searches and seizures were part of a conspiracy to seize assets under Illinois forfeiture law and fund activities that benefited the defendants.
Flanagan wrote that Christa Bradley of Texas pleaded guilty to drug charges when Towne represented that he had legally seized evidence and testimony of officers.
She was sentenced to four years and fined $25,560.
In other arrests, SAFE seized $2,000 from Philip Dorsey of Oregon, who pleaded guilty to drug charges. Dorsey was sentenced to four years and fined $13,290.
SAFE seized $3,400 and a 2005 Nissan Altima from Scott Sheldon of Oregon, who pleaded guilty to drug charges and was sentenced to four years.
Richard Neumann of Oregon pleaded guilty to drug charges, was sentenced to four years, and was fined $10,000.
David Greenhalgh of Maine pleaded guilty to drug charges, was sentenced to three years, and was fined $15,000.
Adam Woodley of Pennsylvania was fined $5,000 and imprisoned.
Robyn Hess of New Jersey was fined $10,000.
SAFE seized $98,800 from Wyatt Whitlow of California, $51,400 from Michael Appel of Pennsylvania, $40,720 from Peter Malpezzi of California, and $31,000 from William Whitlow of California.
It seized $10,420 and a 2006 Honda Ridgeline truck from Douglas Schaan of California.
It seized $5,379 from Colin Brand and Kathleen Brand, a minor, both of California.
It seized $5,000 from Brandon Gaines of Ohio.
For plaintiff Matthew Heinecke of Massachusetts, Flanagan alleges that SAFE violated the Constitution in Massachusetts.
He wrote that in 2015, SAFE officers traveled there with cannabis and currency that they had seized. They represented to law enforcement that they seized evidence in a lawful stop and traced it to a home in Massachusetts.
Law enforcement searched the home and arrested Heinecke, who was a visitor there. He pleaded guilty.
Among lead defendants are the SAFE unit, LaSalle County state’s attorney and Towne.
The long list of co-defendants include SAFE unit supervisor Edward Jauch and unit members Daniel Gillette, Jeff Gaither, and Mark Hoster.
Police chiefs Robert Uranich of LaSalle, Douglas Bernabei of Peru, Brent Roalson of Ottawa and Kevin Sangston of Spring Valley. Flanagan wrote that they provided canine officers, office space, and lockup facilities.
Canine officers named are Mark Manicki and Brian Zebron of LaSalle, Derek Benning and Matthew Heiden of Peru, Timothy Green of Spring Valley and Robert Nilles of Ottawa.
Flanagan also sued the Illinois State’s Attorney Appellate Prosecutor.
That agency receives 12.5 percent of all drug forfeitures. It also supervises activities of the various state’s attorneys in Illinois.
Flanagan wrote that the appellate prosecutor “conspired with Brian Towne to organize, staff, and implement SAFE.”
He wrote that the appellate prosecutor assisted SAFE in funding payrolls through the appellate prosecutor’s portion of the seized funds.
At the time, Towne acted as chairman of the appellate prosecutor’s board.
In 2016, after LaSalle County voters rejected Towne, chief appellate prosecutor Patrick Delfino hired him as a special prosecutor.
Last year, LaSalle County grand jurors indicted Towne on 17 charges that he misused proceeds of SAFE forfeitures.
As of April 9, the appellate prosecutor’s website listed Towne in the special prosecution unit.