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Morelli v. Ward

July 20, 2000

RANDY MORELLI PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
V.
BRENDAN D. WARD, WILL COUNTY SHERIFF; ROBERT GEORGANTAS, HERO TAMELING, HOWARD NORBERG, CLARENCE RED, AND FRED BREEN, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN THEIR CAPACITIES AS MEMBERS OF THE WILL COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE MERIT COMMISSION; AND WILL COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE MERIT COMMISSION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES



Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 12th Judicial Circuit Will County, Illinois No. 97-MR-8161 Honorable William Penn, Judge Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Homer

A.D., 2000

After being terminated by the Will County Sheriff's Office Merit Commission (Commission), Deputy Randy Morelli sought administrative review. He objected to the Commission's admission of certain hearsay testimony and argued, inter alia, that the matter should be remanded to the Commission for presentation of new evidence. The trial court affirmed the Commission's decision, and this appeal followed. After our careful review, we remand the case the case for presentation of new evidence.

FACTS

Will County Sheriff Brendan Ward filed a complaint against Deputy Randy Morelli, charging him with the following violations of the Will County Sheriff's Officers Rules of Conduct: conduct unbecoming of an officer, failure to conform to the laws, and improper use of his weapon. These claims arose out of an alleged domestic violence incident that occurred in December 1996 between Morelli and Kelly Weinmann, his girlfriend with whom he has a daughter. The complaint alleged that, while off duty, Morelli physically assaulted Weinmann by pushing her to the ground, choking her, and pointing his duty handgun at her during an argument. These allegations were derived from a police report and grand jury proceedings in a criminal case that resulted from the incident.

A hearing was held before the Commission. The sheriff and the Commission investigators made numerous attempts to subpoena Weinmann to testify, but were unsuccessful. Because she did not appear at the hearing, the underlying incident was explained by Officer Griner, the Crest Hill police officer who responded to the scene.

At 5:46 a.m. on December 14, 1996, Officer Griner was dispatched to Morelli's residence because of a "possible domestic situation." On his way, Officer Griner saw Weinmann walking on the sidewalk in the area of the residence. He observed that it was a cold morning and that Weinmann was walking in her stocking feet, carrying her shoes, and wearing her coat open. Although she did not appear to be excited, Officer Griner said that she seemed traumatized or overwhelmed. She began sobbing as she spoke to the officer.

Weinmann told Officer Griner that her boyfriend had choked her, had undressed her, and had put a gun to her head. This statement was admitted into evidence, over Morelli's objection, under the excited utterance exception to the hearsay rule.

Officer Griner took Weinmann to the police station where he photographed apparent injuries on Weinmann's neck and hands. Weinmann then completed a "Complaint of Domestic Violence Victim," wherein she described the altercation with Morelli. During his testimony, Officer Griner was asked to review Weinmann's complaint and describe what Weinmann had written. Without objection, Officer Griner testified as follows, apparently reading from Weinmann's written complaint:

"She stated that she had gone to a Christmas party with [Morelli]. She had come home. They had gotten into an argument about talking to Steve McGrath apparently who is a friend of Randy Morelli's. Stated they started arguing. Choking me, tried to defend myself, choking went off, on. Finally made me go upstairs, made me undress and stay in bed. Put his duty gun to my head and under my jaw and said it would be easy to get rid of me and my daughter didn't need me. I asked him to let me go. I told him I would go naked if he let me. He said go ahead, so I did. When I got almost to a neighbor's, he begged me to come back. When I did, he threw me into the home on the floor, began to choke me again. Finally convinced him to stop. Brought me upstairs again to the bed. After about ten minutes on thinking he was asleep, I called my mother for help and to come get me. After that I got my clothes, got dressed, and started to walk to meet my mother."

At the end of his testimony, the sheriff's counsel moved to admit Weinmann's written complaint into evidence. Morelli's attorney said that he did not object to its "form" being admitted but did object to the document "being offered into evidence for the truth of the matter asserted." The Commission allowed its admission because the document's contents had already been admitted without objection during Officer Griner's testimony.

Officer Griner acknowledged that he did not attempt to question Morelli and no further investigation was conducted that morning. He conceded that inspecting Morelli's body and house for signs of struggle would have been reasonable investigatory techniques to determine the veracity of Weinmann's statements. Later on the day of the incident, Weinmann called Officer Griner stating that she wanted to withdraw the complaint. Thereafter, Morelli was arrested and indicted on a charge of domestic battery (720 ILCS 5/12--3.2 (West 1998)). That charge was still pending at the time of the Commission hearing.

Morelli testified in his own defense. He stated that he and Weinmann attended the Will County sheriff's office Christmas party together and left between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on December 14. During the drive to Morelli's house, they began to argue. Morelli stated that Weinmann was angry about him talking and dancing with other women at the party, and she was upset that he did not want her to move into his house. He testified that Weinmann struck him several times on the side of his face as he was driving and that he extended his arm to try to keep her from hitting him again. He asserted that Weinmann was intoxicated and she fell a few times as she walked to the house.

Morelli contends that the argument continued inside his home and that he had to restrain Weinmann to prevent her from hitting him. In the process, Weinmann bit him on the chest. He contends that he took no aggressive physical contact against her and only tried to restrain her. He denied undressing her or having his gun out at any time during the dispute. He states that he broke off the argument around 4:30 ...


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