Illinois Attorney General’s Advice to Flooding Victims: Beware of Scams!

Per the myjournalcourier, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is warning Illinois residents who were affected by more record floods in the state this past week to beware of scammers moving into these flooded communities to exploit victims. Disaster proclamations were issued in 34 counties and according to the article, the Illinois Emergency Management Agency has already received multiple reports of these “storm chasers” moving into these towns and financially scamming people. Here’s the release from Raoul: “Record flooding has devastated river communities throughout Illinois, and it is critical that homeowners and business owners are on alert for scammers who will use the devastation left behind to line their pockets. I encourage people to contact my office or check with the Better Business Bureau to find out whether complaints have been made against a particular contractor, and to be wary of any individual who solicits home repair or insurance adjusting services door-to-door.”

One of the main scams these chasers use is to pretend they’re insurance brokers going around door to door offering people whose houses have been damaged by the floods advice on how they could best obtain money for quick repairs. However, as Kwame warns, these scammers work or receive a fee for the same housing repair companies they recommend to the victims. A few things Raoul advises to residents is to ask people calling themselves insurance adjusters if they can show their permits(which insurance adjusters are legally required to have), get estimates from multiple contractors before closing a deal, never pay in cash, and make sure you get a written obtained copy of the contract.  This is because anyone entering a contract can cancel it within three business days if the contract was signed on the contractors visit to the home, which in the vast majority of these scams is usually the case. Raoul also told people who were victims of these scams or intended victims to call these customer fraud hotline numbers which the article nicely listed: 1-800-386-5438 (Chicago), 1-800-243-0618 (Springfield), and 1-800-243-0607 (Carbondale).

Laura Law Office advises those affected by scams to follow the AG’s advice. It is very sad that he even has to give that advice but it seems that natural disasters are some of the most opportune time for compassionless scammers to exploit people and possibly destroy their lives.

Illinois legislature finally breaks through legalization debate: Recreational Cannabis is Coming


From Bill Hutchinson of ABC News, legalization of marijuana has successfully made it through the state legislature and is now awaiting the approval signature from Governor J. B. Pritzker, who is certainly going to sign it. Illinois is unique not in that it is legalizing recreational cannabis(they will be the 11th state to do so, making recreational cannabis legal in over 20% of the country) but because they will be the first state to enact legalization through its legislature, as the other 10 states did it through ballot initiative. Either way, legal weed is coming as the bill(HB 1438) passed through the House of Representatives by a majority of 66-47.

My favorite part of the bill, which I have noted multiple times throughout this entire process, is the expungement policy baked in. Under this new bill, Illinois residents convicted for small amounts of possession can petition the state if the crime they were convicted for wasn’t associated with any violent act. An estimated 770,000 citizens will likely be able to have their records expunged under this new rule, and that is a positive impact on an enormous amount of people. It’s easy to be cynical about politics, but we have to recognize when some good can finally come from it, even if it seems these policies should’ve been put in place years ago.

As the article notes, past and present Marijuana convictions disproportionately affects minority communities, as systemic racism still runs rife throughout Illinois law enforcement and Illinois court systems. So, the bill should be also be a small step toward social justice, something we desperately need in these unjust times. Here’s some more about the ins and outs of the bill from Hutchinson:  “Under the proposed law, Illinois residents 21 and older, beginning on Jan. 1, 2020, will be able to legally possess up to 30 grams of cannabis — a little more than an ounce — and will be able to purchase it from licensed marijuana dispensaries (currently there are only medical dispensaries and 22 state-licensed cultivation centers). Non-residents of Illinois will be permitted to possess about half the amount of weed than residents will be allowed to possess.” So, naturally you have to still be 21 to be able to purchase cannabis and non Illinois residents visiting the state cannot purchase the same amount as Illinois residents.

Obviously the financial impact on the state’s coffers was always going to come into play, and it does play a big factor in this bill passing. Pritzker believes that in the first year of legalization alone, the State could bring in 170 million dollars in revenue. This large amount is likely even larger because legal cannabis will also be heavily taxed, as expected. A 10% tax will be placed on purchases of products that contain less than 35% of THC, but the tax could go all the way up to 25% if purchasing products with higher doses of THC. Obviously it is still illegal to drive under the influence of cannabis, like alcohol. You also cannot consume cannabis in public areas.

In a lot of ways, one of the persons we most have to give a big thank you to for this bill passing is the democratic senator Kelly Cassidy who has been a long time crusader for legalization and this bill in particular. In April she sat down with NPR to talk about potential legalization and this blog covered that interview here. Here’s what she had to say about the bill passing per the article: “Decades of prohibition hasn’t stopped use, prohibition hasn’t made us safer. Prohibition hasn’t built communities – in fact, it has destroyed them. Prohibition hasn’t created jobs, in fact, it has prevented people from finding work. Ending prohibition will allow us to bring this out of the shadows. Impose reasonable and thoughtful regulation and bring assurance of a tested and safer product.” This is a thoughtful well crafted statement that rings true, as the failed War on Drugs has had disastrous consequences for thousands of communities across the country.

There were a few naysayers obviously in the House who believe that legalization will hurt communities but frankly I don’t feel the need to cover the objections too thoroughly because 1) their crusade was about the battle to control the bodily autonomy of others and put more people into an already overcrowded prison system, not protect communities. And 2) because they lost, and the battle is over. Legalization is coming whether they like it or not, and we should all be thankful for that. Here is the Bill in totality.

Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated Man Wins Huge Settlement

NBC 5 Chicago reports that the now 52 year old Christopher Abernathy will receive a settlement of around 14 million dollars from Insurers representing the Village of Park Forest, from the Village itself, and other local law enforcement as compensation for him being wrongfully detained for 29 years after he was convicted for the slaying and rape of 15 year old Kristina Hickey.

Here are a few details about the case and trial from Abernathy’s page on the National Registry of Exonerations database, written by Maurice Possley. On October the 3rd, 1984, 15 year old Park Forest child Kristina Hickey was abducted on her way home from Coir practice and was found deceased two days later behind a shopping mall. She had been raped and stabbed. Abernathy was an 17 year old high school senior at this time and it was a comment made to police by an acquaintance of his that led police to looking at him. About a year after the murder, Possley writes “police brought in 18-year-old Christopher Abernathy for questioning after an acquaintance, Allan Dennis, told police that several months earlier Abernathy had admitted killing Hickey. Abernathy had attended Hickey’s funeral—as did several hundred other teenagers—and was heard saying that he had a gun in his car and intended to fire a salute afterward. Police checked Abernathy out at that time, but decided the comment was not serious.” But this time the police pinned Abernathy as a serious suspect, in fact it seemed they were specifically focused on Abernathy as their singular suspect. They grilled Abernathy viciously and lengthily as Possley writes. “After more than 40 hours of interrogation, Abernathy, a high school dropout who had been classified as learning disabled, signed a confession saying he saw her walking home and wanted to have sex with her. When she refused, he attempted to rape her and then accidentally stabbed her with a pocket knife he had in his hand.”

First off, rest in peace to Kristina Hickey and my thoughts go out to her family and friends affected by such a vicious, horrible crime. But the police trapped a young, vulnerable man with a learning disability in a darkly lit room without a lawyer present and basically held him hostage until he confessed to a crime he didn’t commit. What other way can you put it? This is why the Laura Law office begs you to never ever talk to police without your lawyer present, even if you are 100% innocent. Ideally people like to believe that the police are always looking out for the truth when questioning suspects, but in a lot of cases they are just confirming the biases they already started with and will be naturally confrontational. Even though Abernathy quickly recanted the confession, claiming that he signed it because the police promised in return he could go free and see his mother, it was too late. The fact that Abernathy thought that in such a serious crime that he would just be able to go home after confessing should’ve made it painfully clear that this young man had some learning disability issues. The police had to know this, but they disgustingly grilled Abernathy for 40 hours anyway. Frankly, that is torture.

When Abernathy went to trial in Cook Counties Circuit Court in January of 1987, the Prosecution’s entire case rested on Abernathy’s confession and the statements made to police by Abernathy’s acquaintance Dennis- mentioned earlier in this blog. There was no forensic or physical evidence that tied him to the crime, and tests on Abernathy’s person for the presence of semen was negative. But the jury convicted him for first degree murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and armed robbery all the same. It’s an atrocity that they allowed that forced confession into evidence for the jury to review. The only thing that saved Abernathy from the death penalty was the fact he was a minor at the time of the crime, which is just another indicator about the death penalties failure as a policy. If Abernathy was a few months older, he would be dead for a crime he didn’t commit and there would be no taking back this grievous mistake.

According to Possley, about 15 years later some new developments in the case began to emerge: Dennis recanted his testimony at trial that Abernathy had confessed to him that he committed the crime. In fact, the police were once again implied to have used coercive methods in their questioning of Dennis to get him to give the statement he originally did. There were also benefits given to Dennis undisclosed to the Defense- like $300 worth of clothes and the promise of leniency on pending minor charges.  Journalist students from Northwestern University dug deep into the case and believed they had found good reason to believe that Abernathy was innocent. They brought their findings to a law firm that included Illinois Innocence project worker Lauren Kaeseberg- who began work on the case in 2013. She subsequently asked the Cook County Integrity unit to review the case as well, and after an agreement between the Innocence Project and Integrity Unit, it was allowed that eight items of evidence were to be tested for DNA evidence. This included items such as Hickey’s clothing and purse. After the testing, it was revealed that there was zero DNA evidence of Abernathy being on any of the items and a partial DNA profile of another person’s was found instead. Although this partial profile wasn’t enough to find the person who it belonged to, the prosecution agreed that these new developments cleared Abernathy of all crimes.

In February of 2015 the Integrity Unity recommended that all charges against Abernathy be dropped, and that same day he was released. He was finally able to go home to his mother, fulfilling the now decades broken promise the police made to him in return for his forced confession- again after 40 hours of interrogation without a lawyer. In 2016 Abernathy filed a Federal civil rights lawsuit against the people he saw as responsible for his incarceration, which included two former police officers who worked on the case and the cook counties states attorney’s office. This lead to the settlement recently won by Abernathy, of nearly 14 million dollars.

It’s undoubtedly good news that Abernathy was granted this settlement and that the police and court systems were actually held accountable for the negative consequences of their actions. But no amount of money in the world can give Christopher back the nearly 30 years he lost. Years he could’ve spent falling in love and being loved, time with friends and family, and just time to be happy. Instead he spent those years inside a cell, likely confused over being caged for a crime he didn’t commit. That is a tragedy and a stark reminder of how confessions are in many cases, coercively obtained.

The other tragedy that should never be forgotten is that of Kristina Hickey’s. She was a child who deserved to live a happy and full life and that was viciously taken away from her in the most brutal way possible and no justice has ever been achieved for her. That justice may never be achieved now because of the police’s decision to focus in on Abernathy, wasting years of valuable time and resources that could’ve went into finding her actual killer. It doesn’t seem fair that those involved in the wrongful incarceration of people such as Abernathy- like the police who interrogated him for 40 hours- should just be financially punished. Lots of times, the vast majority of that financial burden falls on the taxpayers to pay, which will happen in this case too. So those police officers and prosecutors stole years of a person life away and stole money from the public as well. Why shouldn’t they see jail time?

-by Jake Morask

Marijuana Legalization is coming soon to Illinois- Here’s the Bill that could finish the process

About three weeks ago, Governor J.B. Pritzker and his allies revealed their planned bill for Recreational Marijuana legalization. The proposed legislation is an amendment to Senate Bill 7 and one of its main features is allowing persons over the age of 21 to possess up to 30 grams at a time and to grow up to 5 plants in their homes. Julie Tappendorf over at Municipal Minute was kind enough do a brief outline of some of the other main functions of the Bill. I’m just going to look at each of these purposes and do a little analysis on each of them as well.

The first part of the bill that Tappendorf covers regards local communities abilities to prohibit Marijuana businesses from being established. Under the new legislation, communities can limit or outright prohibit Marijuana dispensaries from being established, along with cultivation centers, craft growers, processing organizations, and transportation organizations. The only catch to this is that these communities have to enact these restrictions within one year of the referenced Bill being passed. Otherwise if they try to enact these restrictions past that period, a referendum needs to be passed. Frankly i’m a little surprised that the bill is giving communities the option of outright prohibiting Marijuana dispensaries in their towns. I would be less surprised if the communities tried to outright prohibit persons from home growing, since that seems to be the police’s biggest issue in regards to the dangers of legalization. I guess though that these local governments have more power over the businesses that can and can’t be in their town than they do over what people do in their own homes.

Next we get to a similar function of the Bill: Communities regulatory powers over Marijuana dispensaries. Basically local governments can regulate the locations where dispensaries are located given that they don’t infringe on the language of the bill or on the private citizens ability to home grow. Again I find the home grow part interesting, as it seems this bill is making a point to emphasize that people must have a right to be able grow in their homes, even more so than businesses having a right to sell Marijuana to people. Some prohibited locations will include sensitive places where the local government feels there is a danger to them if they are near Dispensaries.  The bill also allows local governments to regulate the time in which these dispensaries are established, and how many are being established. Finally, here’s Tappendorf’s conclusion on this part of the bill, which emphasizes home growing once again: “The current bill also expressly allows local governments to regulate cannabis businesses through the use of conditional (special) use permits. While the bill allows local governments some regulatory authority, the bill prohibits local governments from regulating cannabis businesses in a more restrictive manner than allowed under the Act. Importantly, this prohibition includes an express home rule preemption.” So the new bill will loosen the regulations currently in place on dispensaries, but I still wouldn’t exactly call these regulations “loose,” just “looser.” But the home grow part again intrigues me, this bill definitely does not want to mess with people rights to home grow.

Now we arrive at the tangle of employment policies and how Marijuana legalization will affect those. The basic summary is that Employers under the new bill would have the right to create a reasonable, non discriminatory Marijuana policy(Basically no Marijuana allowed at work/Don’t be high) and can terminate employees if they do not follow that policy. The bill also gets into when an employer may have reasonable belief that an employee is under the influence of Cannabis which I find is a fascinating and potentially dangerous angle. Can employers make up some bogus reasoning that they think one of their employees is high and then use that to get them fired for that? Employers across America seem to be always looking to get one over on their employees and this may allow them another vehicle to do so. I will remain to be seen and clarified on exactly what employers need to prove to show that their employees are under the influence

This next part is the briefest thankfully and it has to do with taxation. Communities under the new bill may propose a local tax on dispensaries, although the rate of tax cannot exceed 3% of the dispensaries gross receipts from the sale of recreational cannabis. Nothing too crazy or noteworthy here.

Finally, we get to one of the most important part of legalization: Expunging criminal records that were based on Marijuana offenses. The Illinois State Police and States Attorney’s office will be in charge of the initial proceedings of expungement and hopefully they sincerely follow through. After these initial expungements, local law enforcement will have to expunge records regarding arrests for minor Marijuana violations within 60 days of notice from the Illinois State police.

In conclusion, this seems like an actually good bill. I’m impressed by the Bills emphasis on protecting home growing and expunging records for Marijuana offenses. It’ll be interesting to see if this passes the House, Senate, and Governor to come into being. It would finally put an end to this endless debate.

Here’s the link to the full Bill:

Peoria Man’s Murder Sentence Overturned on Technicality

According to Chris Kaergard of the Peoria Journal Star, Peoria native Phouvone Sophanavong had his 55 year murder sentence overturned this past Thursday based on a technicality. Sophanavong kidnapped his estranged wife Laongdao Phangthong in November of 2013, and her body was discovered the day after the kidnapping in the parking garage of the OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria. After a violent standoff with police in which Sophanavong shot himself in the chest twice, he was arrested and taken into custody. In 2014 he plead guilty to the murder of Phangthong, although he continually tried to recant that plea on the basis that he had ineffective council. He was sentenced to 55 years in prison, but there was a mistake during the plea process that has now proved very costly to the prosecution: The Judge was not given information on how Sophanavong’s prior arrests and criminal cases were resolved, which theoretically would have affected his sentencing. Because of this, the 3rd district Appellate court ruled that Sophanavong’s sentence should be overturned and returned to the trial court in Perkin for review and sentencing.

This result is unfortunate to say the least. This isn’t a case of an oppressive court stealing a mans freedom away based on little evidence or a case of oppressive sentencing. This man seemingly did murder Laongdao Phangthong, and it is only a technicality that has provided him with a brief reprieve. My heart goes out to the victim and her family, who probably were shocked upon hearing this news. Even if Sophanavong is given a similar sentence, it’s unfortunate the family will have to relive something that has likely caused them incredible grief and trauma. 

NPR Illinois- Cannabis legislation update and interview with Senator Kelly Cassidy

This week, Illinois Public Radio will be tackling the issue of Cannabis legislation, which has been debated ad nauseam for years at this point. But with the recent election of Governor J.B. Pritzker, who is pro legalization, and some other indicators implying recreational legalization is coming soon that Illinois NPR points out, we thought it be prudent to cover their handling of the issue in their most recent article.

One of those indicators that Illinois NPR reporter Jaclyn Driscoll points out, is the Governors allocation of funds into the 2020 budget for Cannabis business licensing fees. This would obviously indicate that Illinois is preparing for dispensaries to be open for business next year, although it should be pointed out that there are already 55 dispensaries currently in Illinois because Cannabis is legal in the state medically. According to Driscoll there have also been closed door meetings about creating potential legislation for recreational marijuana, although no language from the potential bill has been disclosed.

The lead sponsor of the potential bill, Illinois Democratic Senator Kelly Cassidy, sat down with Driscoll for a 4 minute interview that was transcribed in the article. I already linked it in the introduction but i’ll link it again here. Audio of the interview was also posted. I’ll just do a little bit of analysis on some of the highlights of the interview.

Senator Cassidy gave the usual positive platitudes when talking about Cannabis legislation progress like “The discussions have been great. Very productive, folks are thoughtful and offering ideas, criticisms, suggestions. I’ve felt really good about it.” Given that legalization debate has been going on for years, it can be a little tiring hearing the same old “we’re working on it, check back in a month” attitude legislators have shown on the issue. Driscoll then went into the financial aspect of legalization, questioning how it would be taxed and where the tax money will go. Cassidy makes a good point in arguing that putting money at the center of policy making first will paradoxically lead to less money and worse policy making, but she notes that she understands that money is the most popular topic for lawmakers when it comes to this issue. So, as she notes, there have been thorough discussions of how the funds will be used regarding local government and community health issues. Money shouldn’t be the most popular topic regarding the issue of legalization, it should be social justice, but that money admittedly can function into helping achieve social justice by helping fund schools, hospitals, etc… So it’s undoubtedly important.

Cassidy later gives a snapshot of how legalized Cannabis may look in Illinois. Most importantly regarding this snapshot Cassidy notes, is the issue of overproduction and underproduction. She knows that 55 dispensaries aren’t near enough to satisfy the demands of the Illinois population, and most importantly won’t allow people who consume Cannabis as a medical product to have enough access to satisfy their medical needs. But she doesn’t want to create an issue of overproduction like what happened in Oregon and Washington according to Cassidy. She used the term “grey market” for the dynamic those states have supposedly created by overproduction, where people buy from dispensaries and then sell on the streets.

One of the biggest barriers that Cassidy believes is delaying legalization is the polices fixation on people growing Cannabis in their homes. Police dream up boogieman scenarios where growing Cannabis in your home leads to the most terrible consequences possible. As Cassidy notes, this fear mongering is unsubstantiated. In fact it’s pure garbage and is reminiscent of the attitude of the famous movie Reefer Madness, where a man who gets high on Cannabis goes on a killing spree. If and when legalization does occur, why should the police have the right to interfere with a person’s private production of a legal product? People are already growing in their homes and shocker, nothing terrible has happened. This supposedly big sticking point should be a non issue.

Finally, when asked about the chief goal of her potential legislation, Cassidy declares she wants Illinois to be the “gold standard” for how Cannabis law functions. To her, this includes allowing the industry to grow, allowing users access to Cannabis in safe and legal ways, and some other sort of meaningless platitudes of making a weed industry that looks like the communities of Illinois(Whatever the hell that means). Frankly, it’s a bit disappointing that in her answers of what the chief goal of her potential legislation is, she doesn’t mention anything social justice related. The most important goals of legalization are making sure no human beings ever again get thrown in cages for Cannabis consumption, aren’t financially punished because of Cannabis consumption, and are given full autonomy on what they put into their bodies. But Senator Cassidy deserves credit for leading the charge on legalization in the state, no matter how slow it may be or how pragmatic.

The interview is somewhat informative and worth a read, although Cassidy tends to get a bit generalistic in her answers like most politicians are wont to do. Hopefully legalization will come relatively soon so we can finally put this issue to rest.

By Jake Morask

Belleville News-Democrat: Family of murdered man still holding out hope for justice

On the ninth of December, 2001, John Hill was exiting a Night Club in the East St Louis area around 3:45 A.M when according to police reports he was surrounded by security guards while in his vehicle. Moments later, a shotgun blast through his rear car window would send John to the hospital, where he passed away three days later. The ensuing investigation would be marred by corruption and incompetence, as justice for Hill has never been achieved. This is made all the more painful by the fact that in many eyes, there seems to be a rock solid suspect who was even arrested for the slaying a few weeks after the murder. The suspect being a police officers cousin no less. In fact it’s been reported that the same model of the shotgun used to kill Hill, was found in the suspects trunk. However, further investigation continually stalled, and nothing would come of Kirk Cochran’s(the suspects) arrest. The fact that the suspect was an officers cousin and that the investigation was marred by incompetence and suspicious statements from authorities from the start understandably made many close to Hill believe that a police cover up was in the works. At best, they certainly didn’t believe the police treated Hill like an important human being, fully deserving of justice.

Now over 17 years later, as George Pawlaczyk of the Belleville News-Democrat writes, Hill’s family still is desperately fighting for justice for their beloved family member. I won’t parrot the article here, as it is complex and informative. So I will just link it, so that you may read it. It is well written and delves into who John Hill was as a person, the facts surrounding the case and its investigation, and the areas history of failing to achieve justice for victims like John Hill. The article affirms what many know to be true: That there is a hierarchy of victims, where those at the top of the hierarchy are much more likely to see justice achieved for them than those at the bottom. Race, Gender, and socioeconomic status are all large factors that define whose at the top and bottom of this hierarchy. Many minorities who become victims of violent crimes never see justice,(especially when Law enforcement is involved in the crime) and their cases tragically go cold.


-by Jake Morask

Wrongfully convicted men weigh in on Clutter’s proposed legislation to Kwame Raoul


-Just recently, this blog covered Bill Clutter’s crusade to get Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to consider creating an independent statewide conviction integrity unit that would review possible cases of wrongful convictions. Clutter is best known for his co-founding of the Illinois Innocence project. The justifications for this legislation are laid out in that blog if you would wish to review them. Illinois has had a specifically dark history of wrongful convictions leading to lengthy sentences and sometimes even the death penalty for innocent human beings. In lots of cases that were carried out before Illinois lawmakers passed a bill heavily restricting the use of jailhouse snitches by prosecutors, many men and women were convicted on those jailhouse testimonies. And as covered in last weeks blog, jailhouse testimony is notoriously unreliable. Jailhouse testimony is the leading cause nationally for wrongful convictions, however it is not the only way innocent human beings find themselves behind bars.

Now, as Katie Smith of the Northwestern Herald reports, formerly wrongfully convicted persons are weighing in on Clutter’s proposed idea. One of those men is McHenry County resident Gary Gauger. In April of 1993, Ruth and Morrie Gauger were murdered and robbed by biker outlaws James Schneider and Randall Miller. However, the police had another suspect in mind: The victims son Gary Gauger himself. Despite little evidence or motive, the police pinned Gauger as their man early on and any evidence found thereafter would be manipulated to support their theory. A classic case of confirmation bias. Gary was tried and convicted for the murder of his parents and sentenced to lethal injection. As he said regarding the police’s confirmation bias; “The police get a theory on what happened and they don’t seem to care if it doesn’t match the facts.” Finally 3.5 years later with the help of Northwestern University Law Professor Lawrence Marshall, ( founder of the Center for Wrongful Convictions) was Gary able to successfully appeal his conviction and get it overturned in 1996. The police would then find more evidence pointing to the real killers, Schneider and Miller. By that point, Gary had spent nine months on death row. It would seem a statewide integrity unit filled with objective participants from diverse sections of government would help out in cases like Gauger’s, where the police had already made up their minds the second they reviewed the case and didn’t have the proper funding to look into his conviction anyway.

Gauger’s case is not the only one of its kind in McHenry County the last few decades. As Smith notes, “Gauger’s case is one of two in McHenry County in which perjury or false accusations, official misconduct, and false confessions have led to convictions and subsequent exonerations since 1989, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.” The other McHenry man wrongfully convicted and imprisoned was Mario Casciaro, who in March of 2013 was convicted of the murder of Johnsburg teenager Brian Carrick. After being sentenced to 26 years in Menard Correctional Center, he was released 22 years into his sentence after the Second District Appellate Court overturned his conviction. Casciaro himself believes that McHenry county in its current form is not impartial, progressive, or big enough to create a unit they themselves could run locally. He believes a statewide integrity unit such as the one Clutter proposed, would be an important step. Though he didn’t shut off the idea that McHenry one day could create its own independent integrity unit. “McHenry County specifically is probably a little bit too small right now, but in the future, if there’s continued growth in the population, I imagine there should be an independent conviction investigation unit.”

As the article and this blog noted earlier, the Illinois justice system has a dark history of stealing away the lives of innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit. A number of innocent people have been executed unjustly and there’s no amending those mistakes. From Smith, “Illinois has a history of wrongful convictions. Former Gov. George Ryan labeled the state’s system of capital punishment “haunted by the demon of error” when he halted executions in 2000. By the time Illinois abolished the Death Penalty in 2011, wrongful death sentences imposed on 20 people had been reversed, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.” Some systems have been set in place that may provide precedent for the type of system Clutter is calling for. In 2012, Former States Attorney General Anita Alvarez assembled a Cook County based Integrity unit that reviewed applications from convicted felons. Although many did not meet the criteria for further review, the unit still overturned seventy convictions, unit spokeswomen Tandra Simonton explained.

Further, as the article notes, a similar system to Alvarez’s has been implemented in Lake County. That unit helped exonerate Jason Strong and overturned his conviction which jailed him for the killing of Carpentersville resident Mary Kate Sunderlin. Strong was understandably shocked at how all this had happened to him, and that his life would have possibly been destroyed for a crime he didn’t commit. This has naturally helped shape his views on integrity units and his gratefulness to the one that helped release him. “For a case to be considered by Lake County’s panel, the defendant’s claim must contain new evidence that was not known at the time of trial, previously untested evidence, or some other affirmation of innocence. Strong is a proponent for the conviction integrity panel that helped exonerate him, and attributes its success to objective thinking within the Lake County State’s Attorney’s Office.” Strong went on to say “I admire that, and I think that if you have that kind of quality in a prosecutor then you’re going to get a better integrity unit.”

All three of the wrongfully convicted men interviewed for Smith’s article believe integrity units are key in helping stop the epidemic of wrongly convicted persons. However while two of the three come from the same county, the other comes from a different geographical and socioeconomic context. Jason Strong comes from Lake County which seems to have a decently funded integrity unit. But Gary Gauger and Mario Casciaro argue that their home McHenry county doesn’t have that same type of funding, or integrity for that matter. “Gauger’s experience, however, has left him with doubts about whether McHenry County could handle a unit of its own.”  ‘How do you get politics out of McHenry County?’ Gauger said. ‘It’s difficult.’ The article also notes that, “Casciaro has also been critical of how McHenry County prosecutors handled his case, going as far as to call State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally “delusional.”

It would seem wise to listen to what these men have to say, as they have been through the rigors of the injustice of our justice system. Integrity units are important. Are local ones like the systems in Cook and Lake County enough? I don’t think so, as that idea doesn’t transfer over to counties with significantly lesser populations and lesser fundings. State based integrity units filled with objective quality well picked representatives seems like the most logical and ethical option.

by Jake Morask

Parking Ticket Victory – Chalk it Up to the Fourth Amendment

By: Tim Black

chalked-tire-WikimediaAny avid reader of the LauraLaw Blog knows just how much I love the underdog.  Whether you’re nabbed by a red light camera or inundated with parking tickets, I feel your pain; and if you fight like hell to get out of those tickets, I stand and applaud your efforts.  I am a true believer in fighting parking tickets and have long championed those who take on the system.  One of my parking ticket fighting heroes has been local attorney Todd Kooperman, about whom I wrote in late 2017.  (Update: On March 11, 2019, the Justice Walker of the First District Appellate Court of Illinois delivered a blow to the City of Chicago in the Todd Kooperman case, overturning the decision of the City’s Department of Administrative Hearings and requiring the City “to post signs far enough in advance of ticketing to give reasonable notice to persons who try to comply with the ordinance.”  Congratulations Mr. Kooperman – you are a hero.)  Joining Mr. Kooperman on the Mt. Rushmore of parking ticket pugilists is Saginaw, Michigan hero Alison Taylor.

On 15 separate occasions from 2014 to 2017, Ms. Taylor parked her car on the streets of Saginaw and returned to find a parking ticket.  Pursuant to Saginaw Police practice – a practice common in many municipalities – the Saginaw Police parking enforcement officer would patrol the parking area and mark a small line of chalk on the tire of each parked car.  When she returned after the permitted time for parking, if the chalk mark had not moved, she would issue a parking ticket.  That practice is known as “chalking,” and I’m sure you are all too familiar with its existence; I know I am.  On the 15th ticket, Alison Taylor filed a §1983 lawsuit against the City of Saginaw, et al. in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan alleging that the practice of “chalking” violated her Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable search.  As I’m sure you were expecting to hear, the District Court tossed the case on the City’s motion to dismiss under the theory that “chalking” is a Fourth Amendment search, but it is reasonable under the community caretaker exception.  In other words, even though marking a chalk line on your tire is considered a search of your vehicle, the police don’t need a warrant because it fulfills their duty as caretakers of the community.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was having none of it.  Unable to resist a choice “chalk” pun, Circuit Judge Bernice Bouie Donald drafted a beautiful Opinion reversing the trial court and parking this case right back in the District Court.  In essence, she found that “chalking” constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment because it involves the police trespassing upon a constitutionally protected area (your car) to obtain information (whether you’ve moved your car).  Unaccepting of the City’s argument that the search was reasonable under community caretaker exception, Judge Donald found that the City failed to establish that the search had any connection to public safety and its sole purpose was to gather evidence used to generate revenue.  The search is unreasonable.  The case was reversed and remanded.  Alison Taylor is a hero.

The Court was careful to clarify that the opinion does not say the community caretaker exception could never apply, and it does not say that there are no other exceptions under which “chalking” could fall, only that based on the arguments put forth by the City of Saginaw on the facts in this case, the search was unreasonable.  We will keep our eyes peeled for updates to this case, and I am always looking for parking ticket warriors out there fighting the good fight.  So, stay tuned to LauraLaw’s blog and as always, if you should find yourself under investigation or under arrest, contact us and one of our skilled attorneys will be happy to discuss your case.

**UPDATE (05.01.2019):  Two days after publishing the original Opinion, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals took the very rare action of issuing an Amended Opinion to clarify its ruling.  The Amended Opinion is exactly the same as its original, except for the addition of the following paragraph to the Opinion’s conclusion:

“Taking the allegations in Taylor’s complaint as true, we hold that chalking is a search under the Fourth Amendment, specifically under the Supreme Court’s decision in Jones. This does not mean, however, that chalking violates the Fourth Amendment. Rather, we hold, based on the pleading stage of this litigation, that two exceptions to the warrant requirement—the “community caretaking” exception and the motor-vehicle exception—do not apply here. Our holding extends no further than this. When the record in this case moves beyond the pleadings stage, the City is, of course, free to argue anew that one or both of those exceptions do apply, or that some other exception to the warrant requirement might apply.”

Basically, the Sixth Circuit is pumping the brakes on the national reaction to the ruling.  If you read a lot of legal opinions, you know that judges often go to great lengths to apply their ruling to the specific facts put in front of the court, and not to extend their ruling to all other possible iterations – which makes sense.  Judges are not fortune tellers.  Practically speaking, this clarification says that the arguments put forth by the Government, in this case, are not viable exceptions to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement, but there might be other exceptions that were not argued here.  Or there might not.  I don’t expect this is the last we hear about “chalking,” so stay tuned and keep fighting your parking tickets.

Innocence Project Co-Founder Calls On Kwame Raoul to Create a Unit to Help Free Wrongfully Convicted Prisoners

imageFrom Dana Vollmer of Northern Public Radio, Springfield private detective Bill Clutter is asking Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul to create a statewide unit to review possible cases of wrongfully convicted prisoners. Clutter is most known for being a co-founder of the Illinois innocence project, which has helped free a dozen wrongfully convicted persons in the state since the organizations founding in 2001. Clutter cited the Cook County Conviction Integrity unit as a precedent for the unit he’s looking to see created. That unit has helped free 54 wrongfully convicted persons in Cook County. However as Clutter notes, Cook County is one of the biggest counties in the country, and most other counties don’t have the financial ability to create a truly independent review unit. Local law enforcement is also unlikely to do much about wrongfully convicted prisoners due to a the intricate web of connections in these smaller communities. “Local legal communities are tight knit,” Clutter said. “Prosecutors that have the role of state’s attorneys tend to protect their predecessors and even judges to some extent. It’s just human nature.” And since nonprofits such as the Innocence Project have a hard time doing much without cooperation from local law enforcement, Clutter would like to see Raoul step in and assemble a team of independent lawyers and detectives to review cases that might have resulted in wrongful convictions.

According to Vollmer, The first case that Clutter is asking Raoul to review, is that of Thomas McMillan. McMillan was a Springfield man who was convicted for the 1989 murder of Melissa Koontz on the basis of testimony from jailhouse informants. Jailhouse informant testimony is notoriously unreliable for many reasons, one being that the informant is highly incentivized to give anything valuable to law enforcement even if it’s fake as they can strike a better deal for themselves. Just last November, Illinois lawmakers overrode former Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto on Bill 1830, which reformed the way jailhouse informants can be used by prosecutors. This bill gave Illinois arguably the strongest jailhouse informant transparency laws in the nation. Under the new bill, Prosecutors now have to disclose that they are using jailhouse informants at least 30 days before the trial, and they have to reveal to the defense what benefits they are planning on giving to the informant in exchange for their testimony. After that, Prosecutors will then have to prove to a Judge that an informants testimony is reliable and admissible. Clutter believes that with these new laws, McMillan’s case should be reviewed as so much of the conviction hinged on jailhouse informant testimony. According to the Innocence Project, Jailhouse informants are the number one cause of wrongful convictions nationally and have played a role in 16% of DNA based exonerations. In Illinois alone, 17 people have been wrongfully convicted due to Jailhouse informants, serving a combined 227 years. 


by Jake Morask