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July 15, 1994


Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 13th Judicial Circuit, LaSalle County, Illinois. No. 93-CF-116. Honorable James A. Lanuti, Judge Presiding.

Released for Publication August 22, 1994. Petition for Leave to Appeal Denied October 6, 1994.

Present - Honorable Allan L. Stouder, Justice, Honorable Tom M. Lytton, Justice, Honorable Michael P. Mccuskey, Justice

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stouder

JUSTICE STOUDER delivered the opinion of the court:

The defendant, Raul Aguilar, Jr., was indicted on a charge of cannabis trafficking. Following a hearing on certain pre-trial matters, the trial Judge conducted an inquiry into whether the State intended to offer into evidence any statements made by the defendant. A dispute arose over the admissibility of certain statements made by the defendant at the scene of his arrest and also a formal statement the defendant made to the officers. The trial Judge ruled that those statements constituted inadmissible hearsay. The State filed a timely notice of appeal, indicating substantive impairment of its ability to prosecute.

The defendant's arrest for the instant offense occurred after he was stopped for speeding on Interstate 80 by Trooper Daniel Gillette of the Illinois State Police. Gillette observed the defendant's truck, with Texas license plates, travelling 6 miles per hour over the speed limit. Gillette pulled the defendant over and asked for his driver's license, log book, and bill of lading. The defendant did not have a bill of lading because his truck was empty. Gillette asked the defendant to bring the log book to Gillette's squad car. Gillette was suspicious after his initial conversation with the defendant because the defendant was travelling to Joliet with an empty truck after dropping off a load of onions in Kansas City. Gillette believed that it was strange for an owner/operator to be travelling that distance without freight or cargo, because an owner/operator does not make money when he is travelling empty. The defendant informed Gillette that he owned the tractor part of the truck, but not the trailer. He had leased the trailer for two trips. According to Gillette, the defendant was not nervous and was not being evasive. The defendant's log book was consistent with his story that he dropped off a load of onions in Kansas City.

Gillette's suspicions were further aroused when the defendant did not have much information about the load he was supposedly picking up in Chicago. The defendant was supposed to place a phone call when he reached Joliet in order to find out his exact destination. Gillette was also suspicious because the defendant was coming from south Texas, a known origin for drugs. Gillette then engaged the defendant in a conversation about drugs. The defendant told Gillette that large amounts of drugs were shipped from Starr County, Texas. Gillette then asked the defendant if he was carrying drugs, and the defendant responded, "no." Gillette then asked the defendant if he would consent to a search of the truck. The defendant agreed, and signed his name to the consent form.

Initially, Gillette looked into the trailer and confirmed that it was empty, except for three stacks of pallets. Then Gillette measured the inside and outside walls of the trailer. The defendant helped him take these measurements. The defendant and Gillette agreed that something was wrong with the measurement of the front wall of the trailer. They concluded that it was too thick. The defendant then helped Gillette move the pallets and take another measurement. They also counted the rivets in the walls. A drug-sniffing dog was then allowed into the trailer, and the dog alerted for the presence of drugs behind the front wall. A false compartment was located behind the wall, and a number of tin boxes were removed. The police also seized $531 from the defendant. The defendant told Gillette that he did not know there were drugs behind the wall.

The above testimony was adduced at the hearing on the defendant's motion to suppress evidence. At the close of that hearing, the trial Judge asked if the State intended to produce any admissions or confessions. The State informed the court that the defendant denied knowledge of everything.

Prior to trial, a disagreement arose concerning the admissibility of a formal statement defendant gave to officers Rodney Strack and Rodney Damron. This statement was contained in a report made by Damron. The defendant again denied any knowledge that there was cannabis in the truck. According to Damron's report, Aguilar told him that he rented the trailer approximately two weeks before his arrest from Jose Barron of Weslaco, Texas. Aguilar met Barron at a truck stop in Pharr, Texas. Barron offered the defendant a trailer to rent for a trip to Joplin, Missouri. The defendant was to pay Barron $200 for the use of the trailer after the defendant completed his trip. Barron gave the defendant a pager number that he could use to contact Barron. The defendant took a load of produce to Joplin, then picked up a load in Wichita, Kansas, took it to Lorado, Texas, and then went home for a day. The defendant then contacted Barron and asked if he could use the trailer to haul a load to Kansas City, Kansas. Barron told him he could do so for a fee of $100. Barron then offered the defendant $2,000 to haul a load from Chicago to Texas. Barrontold the defendant to page him from the Joliet area to receive further instructions on where to pick up the load that he was to haul to Texas. The defendant delivered a load of onions to the Robinson Potato Supply Company in Kansas City, Kansas, and then paged Barron. He informed Barron that he was on his way to Joliet. On the way to Joliet, the defendant was stopped by the police.

The trial Judge ruled that the defendant's statement was hearsay. The trial Judge believed that only admissions by a defendant are admissible, and that any statements that are not admissions are inadmissiblehearsay. The trial Judge found that the defendant's statement was exculpatory and was not "an admission that he committed a crime or an admission of the (sic) element of the offense." The trial Judge ruled that only defendant's statement that he came from Kansas was an admission because crossing state lines is an element of the offense of cannabis trafficking. This ruling applied to the defendant's formal statement and also the statements that he made to Gillette during the traffic stop. The State filed a notice of appeal from this pre-trial ruling, citing substantial impairment of the State's ability to prosecute.

In this case, we apply the de novo standard of review. Ordinarily, the question of admissibility of evidence is within the sound discretion of the trial Judge and will not be overturned unless a clear abuse of discretion is shown. ( People v. Brown (1990), 199 Ill. App. 3d 860, 557 N.E.2d 611, 145 Ill. Dec. 841.) However, it has also been stated that, although a trial court's ruling on a motion to suppress evidence will not be disturbed on appeal unless it is manifestly erroneous, where neither the facts nor the credibility of witnesses is in dispute, the question is a legal one subject to de novo consideration on review. ( People v. Wehde (1991), 210 Ill. App. 3d 56, 568 N.E.2d 910, 154 Ill. Dec. 689; People v. Mourecek (1991), 208 Ill. App. 3d 87, 566 N.E.2d 841, 152 Ill. Dec. 964.) Although the trial court's decision not to allow the defendant's statement into evidence did not arise from a motion to suppress, the same principle should apply. The trial Judge's decision was based on his interpretation of the admissions exception to the rule against hearsay. This case involves a legal issue and did not require the trial court to use its discretion regarding fact-finding or assessing the credibility of witnesses. Consequently, this is an issue we can review anew, without affording the trial court's decision any deference.

The parties to this appeal agree that the defendant's statements were entirely exculpatory. The trial court found that, because the defendant's statements were exculpatory, they could not qualify as admissions. The trial Judge's view of the law was that any statement by a defendant that did not qualify as an "admission" was inadmissible hearsay. The trial Judge believed that an admission was an admission of guilt or of an element of the offense and that an exculpatory statement could not be an admission. The trial Judge concluded the defendant's statements in this case were inadmissible hearsay. We disagree with the trial court's analysis.

The hearsay rule is not a basis for objection when the defendant's own statements are offered against the defendant; in such a case the defendant's statements are termed "admissions." ( People v. Wilson (1981), 92 Ill. App. 3d 370, 415 N.E.2d 1315, 48 Ill. Dec. 31.) Any statement by an accused person, unless excluded by the privilege against self-incrimination or other exclusionary rules, may be used against him as an admission. ( People v. Clay (1990), 211 Ill. App. 3d 291, 570 N.E.2d 335, 155 Ill. Dec. 822; People v. Howell (1977), 53 Ill. App. 3d 465, 368 N.E.2d 689, 11 Ill. Dec. 138.) Illinois courts have relied on Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2) in finding that a defendant's admissions are not excludable as hearsay. (See People v. Simpson (1977), 68 Ill. 2d 276, 369 N.E.2d 1248, 12 Ill. Dec. 234; ...

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