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People v. Wright

February 17, 2000


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice McMORROW

Agenda 11-November 1999.

Defendant, Johnnie Wright, was the owner of J&J Scrap Auto Wrecking Company, an auto parts recycling business. On January 25, 1996, auditors from the Secretary of State's office arrived at defendant's business, reviewed documents in his business office, and took an inventory of the vehicles in the lot surrounding the office. As a result of this audit, defendant was placed under arrest and charged with two counts of possession of a stolen motor vehicle (see 625 ILCS 5/4-103(a)(1) (West 1996)), 27 counts of failure to keep records (see 625 ILCS 5/5-401.2(a), (i) (West 1996)), and 25 counts of possession of title without complete assignment (see 625 ILCS 5/4-104(a)(2) (West 1996)).

Following a bench trial, the circuit court of Cook County found defendant not guilty of the possession of a stolen motor vehicle charges and not guilty of two of the counts of failure to keep records. The circuit court found defendant guilty of the remaining charges of failure to keep records and possession of title without complete assignment.

On appeal, the appellate court reversed defendant's convictions because it found that the circuit court had failed to consider the mental state required to establish the offenses of failure to keep records and possession of title without complete assignment. The appellate court ordered the cause remanded for a limited nonevidentiary hearing for the circuit court to apply the appropriate mental state to the existing record. 302 Ill. App. 3d 128. We granted defendant's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315(a).

We hold that defendant's convictions for possession of title without complete assignment must be reversed because the evidence at trial was insufficient to establish the mental state required for a violation of section 4-104(a)(2). With respect to defendant's convictions for failure to keep records, we find that the circuit court applied the mental state necessary to establish a violation of section 5-401.2 and affirm his convictions under that provision of the Vehicle Code.


At defendant's trial, Russell Hoekstra, an auditor for the Special Audit Team of the Secretary of State's office, testified that, on January 25, 1996, he and two other auditors conducted an audit at J&J Scrap Auto Wrecking Company (J&J) in Blue Island, Illinois. When the auditors arrived at the J&J office at about 9 a.m., they spoke to defendant, who identified himself as the owner of the business. Hoekstra informed defendant that they were there to conduct an inspection of his business. He asked defendant for his license, his police book, and any other records. Defendant provided Hoekstra with his police book. He told Hoekstra that he could not find the titles for his vehicles but that his secretary would be able to find them when she returned from an errand. Defendant also gave Hoekstra a 1995 license, which listed him as the only owner of J&J. When asked about his 1996 license, defendant stated that he had applied for it but that he had not received it or could not find it.

Hoekstra then informed defendant that an inventory would be taken of all of the vehicles in the J&J lot and that the vehicles would be matched to the paperwork defendant provided. According to Hoekstra, the south and north boundaries of the J&J lot were each marked by a row of truck trailers. These boundaries were approximately 225 feet apart. The office was near the front of the lot and the rear of the lot was marked by railroad tracks about 600 or 700 feet behind the office. Hoekstra acknowledged that defendant's 1995 license indicated that the lot size was only 50 feet by 250 feet, but he stated that defendant had told him that the trailers were the north boundary of the J&J lot. An inspection by the Secretary of State's office and defendant's 1996 license described the property size as four acres.

During the course of their inventory and inspection of defendant's records, the auditors discovered several irregularities. Hoekstra testified that they learned that two of the vehicles included in their inventory had been reported stolen. One of these vehicles, a 1987 blue Ford Taurus station wagon, was located approximately 150 yards behind the J&J office and 20 feet from the trailers marking the south boundary of the lot. The other car, a white 1987 Ford Escort, was located approximately 20 yards behind and 40 to 50 feet north of the Taurus.

Hoekstra asked defendant whether all of the vehicles in the J&J lot were his. Defendant responded that one car, his employee's car, did not belong to him. According to Hoekstra, defendant did not tell him that any of the vehicles in his lot belonged to James Crumb. When Hoekstra specifically inquired about the stolen vehicles, defendant told Hoekstra that a towing company had brought the Taurus and the Escort to the lot. Defendant gave Hoekstra a name of the towing company, but Hoekstra did not try to contact the company. Hoekstra did not remember defendant calling someone named Jim from Night and Day Towing.

At approximately 11:30 a.m., defendant's secretary gave Hoekstra 217 vehicle titles. After comparing the titles to the vehicles in the J&J lot, Hoekstra found that only 18 of the titles matched the 101 vehicles in the lot. He asked defendant whether he had any documentation for the other vehicles. Defendant responded that he did not. The assignment portion of 173 of the 217 titles Hoekstra examined was not completed. In addition, the auditors observed that defendant's police book failed to indicate the disposition of 189 vehicles. That is, there were 290 entries in the book showing the acquisition but no disposition of a vehicle, yet there were only 101 vehicles in the J&J lot. In addition, defendant did not have a parts book to record the parts that he sold.

According to Hoekstra, if defendant scrapped or crushed a car, he was required to record this disposition in his police book. Hoekstra testified that defendant's police book indicated that a few of the vehicles he had acquired had been scrapped or crushed. Defendant, did not, however, have documents, such as a uniform invoice or junk certificate, showing that he had disposed of the vehicles this way.

Based on the discovery of the stolen vehicles on the J&J lot, Hoekstra contacted the Illinois State Police. During the afternoon of January 25, 1996, Special Agent Lemming, Sergeant Jeffrey Blair, and other Illinois State Police officers arrived with a warrant to search defendant's business. Defendant told the officers that the Taurus had been in the J&J lot since December 1995 and the Escort had been in the lot for about six months. Like Hoekstra, Blair testified that the north and south boundaries of the J&J lot were each marked by a row of truck trailers. According to Blair, the boundaries were approximately 100 feet apart.

Lemming testified that, when he arrived at J&J, he spoke to Hoekstra, and Hoekstra gave him the police book and 199 of the titles he had received from defendant's secretary. Lemming and the other State Police officers searched the J&J office. They found defendant's 1996 license application, which had not been sent to the Secretary of State's office.

Lemming also spoke to defendant. When Lemming informed defendant that two stolen vehicles had been found in the J&J lot, defendant replied that a man named Jim from Night and Day Towing had towed both vehicles into the lot. Defendant called Jim from the office and handed the receiver to Lemming, but Lemming heard no one on the line. Lemming recalled seeing a card for Night and Day Towing with a telephone number and the name Jim on it. Several days later Lemming attempted to get the telephone number for Night and Day Towing. The telephone company had no listing for this business, and Lemming was unsuccessful in his attempt to get the number from one of defendant's employees.

Lemming arrested defendant late in the day on January 25, 1996. Following the arrest, Lemming questioned defendant further. Defendant explained his auto recycling business to Lemming. He stated that he places advertisements in the Chicago Sun-Times offering to buy junk vehicles from people. Defendant uses his tow truck to tow these vehicles to the J&J lot. Defendant told Lemming that he has a partner named James Crumb but that defendant handled the day-to-day operations of the business, and defendant is the only J&J employee who purchased vehicles and received titles for J&J. According to Lemming, defendant also said that he sold auto parts from the J&J lot.

Defendant told Lemming that he had heard that the Escort and the Taurus were in his yard, but he had only seen the Escort. Defendant stated that he did not know these cars were stolen. Defendant said that he also knew that these cars were not in his police book, but this was because his secretary had probably forgotten to enter them into the book. With respect to the number of titles found in his office, defendant stated that, if he had a title without a vehicle, it meant that he had sent the vehicle to the "shredder."

According to Lemming, in order for title to a vehicle to be properly transferred, the seller must sign the back of his or her title, then the space for the buyer's name and address must be completed. Lemming testified that, with respect to nine of the vehicle titles recovered from defendant's office, there had been no assignment on the back of the titles to defendant or J&J. On the back of three of these titles, the spaces for assignment had been completed, but the assignment was to an entity or individual other than J&J or defendant. The spaces for assignment on the back of the other six titles were blank. None of these nine vehicles were in the J&J lot. With respect to 16 of the other vehicle titles found in defendant's office, some of the sellers of the vehicles had signed the back of the titles, but the spaces for assignment to the buyer were incomplete. On the back of one of the16 titles, J&J was listed as the buyer, but there was no address for J&J or date of assignment. On the remaining 15, neither J&J nor defendant were listed as a buyer. None of these 25 titles had been entered into defendant's police book.

Detective Paul Bernatek testified that in October 1988, he had a conversation with defendant during which he told defendant that, when defendant received the title for a vehicle, he was required to have the seller write his or her name and address on the title, after which defendant was to sign it, date it, and write the odometer reading on the title. He also told defendant that auto parts recyclers were required to maintain a book with records of their acquisitions of vehicles, including the identity of the seller, the date, the year, the make and the body style. Bernatek also informed defendant that, when a recycler disposed of a vehicle, he was required to list the date of disposition and the destination of the vehicle. In January 1989, Bernatek had another conversation with defendant, during which he again informed defendant of these record-keeping requirements for auto parts recyclers. Bernatek acknowledged that these conversations were not recorded in the reports he prepared.

Defendant and his employee, Jesse Dawkins, presented a completely different version of the events of January 25, 1996. In addition, their description of the dimensions of the J&J lot differed significantly from that of the State's witnesses.

According to Dawkins, when the auditors arrived at 9 a.m., Dawkins told them that only defendant's secretary was in the office, and defendant was not there. Defendant and Dawkins testified that defendant did not arrive at the J&J lot until 11 or 11:30 a.m. on January 25, 1996. At that time, Hoekstra told defendant that they were there to investigate his lot but did not ask for his police book. Hoekstra also did not ask defendant for any vehicle titles, and defendant did not give him any titles or records.

As the auditors performed their inventory, defendant and Dawkins saw them record the serial numbers of cars in the J&J lot, as well as in the two lots north of defendant's. These two lots were owned by James Crumb and Charles Dixon, who, like defendant, were in the auto wrecking business. Although defendant told Hoekstra that the vehicles on those lots were not his, Hoekstra told him that the vehicles would be considered his because he was the only one with a license.

Dawkins and defendant testified that the south boundary of the J&J lot is marked by truck trailers, but there were no trailers along the north boundary of the lot. According to defendant, the dimensions of the J&J lot were 51½ feet by 887 feet. There was a private residence on the front half of ...

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