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People v. Swartwout

January 28, 2000


Appeal from the Circuit Court of Winnebago County. No. 97--CM--5309 Honorable Timothy R. Gill, Judge, Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Hutchinson

Following a jury trial, defendant, Seldon Swartwout, was found guilty of criminal housing management (720 ILCS 5/12--5.1 (West 1996)) and sentenced to two years' conditional discharge. Defendant appeals, contending that (1) the charging instrument was insufficient because it failed to specify the acts that constituted the offense; (2) he was not proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt; and (3) the trial court erred when it instructed the jury on its definition of "residence." We affirm.

The charges in this case arise from defendant's ownership of a house on Lincoln Park Boulevard in Rockford. The State alleged that defendant booby-trapped his home by attaching rat traps to the door jambs of the house near the door knobs and hiding rat traps on the floor. The State also alleged that defendant created a trap using chainsaw blades, or, more accurately, the chains from chainsaw blades, by stretching one chain across the pathway in the house at shin level and a second chain across the same pathway behind the first near neck level. Defendant does not dispute the factual substance of these allegations on appeal.

On July 7, 1997, defendant was charged by a criminal complaint that alleged that on April 24, 1997, defendant had control of a house located in Rockford and recklessly allowed the physical condition of the house to remain in a condition that endangered any person. On August 7, 1997, defendant filed a motion for discovery and a motion for a bill of particulars. In his motion for a bill of particulars, defendant asked the State to identify, inter alia, the physical conditions of the property that endangered the safety of any person and the specific criminal acts the State sought to prove at trial. The trial court entered no written order in response to the motion for a bill of particulars, and the record on appeal contains neither a written response to defendant's motions nor a report of proceedings for a hearing on these motions.

On April 28, 1998, defendant filed a motion to dismiss and three motions in limine. The motion to dismiss contended that the complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to constitute an offense. The first motion in limine sought to exclude evidence of defendant's prior convictions for various health code and traffic violations. The second motion in limine sought to exclude evidence of rat traps and chainsaw traps and alleged that, "based upon discovery received to date, it is believed the State intends to present into evidence testimony regarding testimony of physical evidence of rat traps or chainsaw traps." The third motion in limine sought to exclude evidence of bombs, bomb squad investigations, and searches.

The trial court ruled that the State's bomb disposal witness could testify that he was trained to dispose of bombs but should describe his actions as a search for dangerous devices. Defendant argued that the evidence of rat traps should be excluded because the criminal housing management statute did not apply outside of a landlord-tenant relationship. The trial court ruled that the plain language of the statute did not contain such a limitation and denied defendant's motion to exclude evidence of the rat traps. The court finally ruled that the State could not elicit testimony regarding defendant's prior convictions, but the trial court would allow evidence that defendant had prior contact with the health department to establish the nature of his relationship with the State's witness from the health department.

At trial, Sergeant Paul DeNard testified that he was an explosive ordinance disposal technician in the Unites States Army stationed at Fort McCoy. On April 24, 1997, he was dispatched to 207 Lincoln Park Boulevard in Rockford. When he arrived he examined the area for hazardous devices and decided to use a remote-controlled robot to enter the house. DeNard attempted to maneuver the robot through a screen door into the house but discovered that the path was blocked by garbage. The robot broke the door jamb and sprang a rat trap that was attached to the jamb. DeNard decided to enter the house himself and donned a protective suit. As he approached the front door, he found a piece of plastic covering the window. He pulled the plastic back and discovered a rat trap inside the building next to the lock. DeNard determined that the trap was not attached to anything else and sprang the trap. DeNard discovered several more rat traps on the floor in the house, one of which was hidden by a plastic bag. DeNard continued into the house and encountered two chainsaw chains. DeNard testified that one chain was stretched across the pathway at shin or knee height and the other was positioned at face level, held taut by a bungee cord.

Suzanne Dobson testified that she was a supervisor at the Winnebago County Health Department. Dobson testified that defendant owned the property at 207 Lincoln Park Boulevard. Dobson had dealt with defendant for the past 19 years regarding the condition of various properties. On July 18, 1996, she inspected the house at 207 Lincoln Park Boulevard at defendant's request. Defendant told her that he needed the inspection to obtain a building permit and to receive electric service. Dobson discovered that the house had been damaged by a fire and was filled with furniture, tools, boxes, paper, and empty dog food bags. After completing her inspection, Dobson condemned the house as unfit for human habitation and instructed defendant that he needed to clean out the debris, repair the damage, and bring the building up to code before it could be occupied. Dobson testified that the health department's procedures required an inspector to visit condemned property monthly to determine whether the property remained vacant and secured.

Dobson further testified that she was later contacted by defendant's attorney, David Black. On August 18, 1996, she met with defendant and Black at the house. They discussed possible remedies for the code violations at the property. Following the discussion, defendant agreed he would begin cleaning the interior of the house and would contact the health department weekly to arrange further inspections of the house. In exchange the health department agreed to allow defendant to restore electric service, provided that defendant used electricity when necessary for cleaning and repairs. Dobson testified that defendant failed to adhere to the agreement because he never contacted her again and subsequent inspections revealed no change in the condition of the house.

Mary Benson, defendant's ex-wife, testified that she lived at 206 Lincoln Park Boulevard, directly across the street from defendant's house. Benson and defendant had lived together in the house at 207 Lincoln Park Boulevard prior to their divorce, and after the divorce defendant resided alone in the house. She testified that the neighborhood was residential and that she had seen children near defendant's house. She approached the children, followed them home, and warned their parents that they should keep away from the property. Benson testified that defendant's house was damaged by a fire in January 1996 and condemned by the health department. Benson saw defendant often, and he sometimes stayed with her in her house when he was in Rockford following the fire. Defendant told Benson that he was angry that his residence had been condemned.

Benson further testified that in April 1997 defendant was staying with her at her home. Defendant asked her to help him carry some files across the street from his house at 207 Lincoln Park Boulevard to her house at 206 Lincoln Park Boulevard. When they reached the fence surrounding defendant's property, he told Benson to follow directly behind him because traps were set in the yard. As they approached the house, defendant said there were traps that he needed to take care of before they could enter the house. A screen door led to a porch on the front of the house; the screen was ripped and the door could be unlatched by reaching through the screen. Defendant reached through the screen and used a short stick to set off a rat trap near the latch. He then reached in and unlatched the door. A second door led into the interior of the house. Defendant pulled back a piece of plastic that was covering a window opening in the door and set off a second rat trap. That trap was attached to the door near the latch. Benson entered the house, and defendant told her to stand still because there were more traps in the house. Benson observed another rat trap on the kitchen floor hidden by a plastic bread bag. Benson also observed two chainsaw chains stretched across the dining room, one at ankle height and another behind it approximately six feet above the floor. Benson asked defendant why the traps were set in the house, and he replied that they were to keep out people, burglars, thieves, the health department, the fire department, the police department, anyone that did not live there or was not allowed there. Defendant reset that traps as they left the house.

After the State rested its case, defendant presented his motion to dismiss and moved for a directed verdict. The trial court took both motions under advisement.

David Black, an attorney, testified on defendant's behalf. Black testified that defendant contacted him for assistance in obtaining permits for work on the house. Defendant wanted to activate electric service at the home, but he needed a permit from the building department. The electric company also sought payment for previous unpaid bills. In August 1996 Black arranged a meeting at the house with several county officials, including Dobson. The parties agreed that the house would remain vacant until repairs were completed and that electricity would be connected to a single location bypassing the damaged existing wiring. However, Black encountered difficulty resolving the billing dispute with the electric company, and the electricity remained off during 1996.

Defendant rested his case and again moved for a directed verdict. The trial court took the motion under advisement.

In closing, the State argued that defendant booby-trapped the house because he was angry with the health department and intended to harm any inspectors that might visit the property. Defendant argued that placing rat traps and chainsaw chains in his house was not a crime. Defendant further argued that he was not reckless, because he intended to repair the house but was prevented from doing so because electricity was not available in the house.

The trial court refused defendant's tendered definitions of "residence" and instead offered its own definition. The jury found defendant guilty of criminal housing management. After the jury was dismissed, the trial court denied the defendant's pending motion to dismiss and motions for a directed verdict. The trial court subsequently denied defendant's posttrial ...

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