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People v. O'Brien

September 12, 2000

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
LEWIS O'BRIEN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from Circuit Court of Champaign County No. 99TR11889 Honorable Michael Q. Jones, Judge Presiding.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Garman

Following a bench trial, the circuit court of Champaign County found defendant Lewis O'Brien guilty of driving an uninsured vehicle under section 3-707 of the Illinois Vehicle Code (Code) (625 ILCS 5/3- 707 (West 1998)). The trial court imposed a fine of $501 plus court costs against defendant. The trial court subsequently denied defendant's motion for a new trial. Defendant appeals, arguing that the trial court erroneously found section 3-707 of the Code to be an absolute liability offense. He further contends that the State was required to prove a culpable mental state. Because it did not, it failed to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. We reverse.

I. BACKGROUND

In June 1999, the State issued a traffic citation to defendant for driving an uninsured vehicle in violation of section 3-707 of the Code. The trial court held a bench trial on the citation in August 1999.

Officer Stephen Mechling testified that he is a police officer at the University of Illinois. On June 10, 1999, he observed that the automobile that defendant was driving had an expired registration sticker. Mechling stopped the vehicle. Defendant told Lewis that he had borrowed the car and did not know that the sticker had expired. Mechling checked the license plate number using the mobile computer in his squad car and learned that the owner of the automobile had an expired driver's license and expired license plates. Mechling believed that "there was a probable good chance there wasn't insurance on the vehicle." He then issued a citation for an uninsured motor vehicle.

The State rested its case.

Defendant's attorney moved for a directed verdict, arguing that section 3-707 of the Code was not an absolute liability statute. The State had not proved its case because the evidence showed that defendant had no knowledge of the lack of insurance or any intent to commit the offense. The trial court denied the motion for a directed verdict, finding that section 3-707 is an absolute liability offense.

No other evidence was presented. The trial court found defendant guilty of driving an uninsured vehicle in violation of section 3-707. Defendant filed a posttrial motion reasserting the arguments he made at trial. The trial court denied his motion and sentenced him as aforesaid.

This appeal followed.

II. ANALYSIS

Defendant argues that the trial court erred in finding that section 3-707 of the Code creates an absolute liability offense. As he did in the trial court, defendant contends that the State failed to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of violating section 3-707 because it did not prove that he knew that the vehicle was uninsured or that he intended to commit the offense. We agree that the trial court erred in finding that section 3-707 of the Code creates an absolute liability offense.

Section 4-9 of the Criminal Code of 1961 (Criminal Code) provides:

"Absolute Liability. A person may be guilty of an offense without having, as to each element thereof, one of the mental states described in [s]sections 4-4 through 4-7 if the offense is a misdemeanor which is not punishable by incarceration or by a fine exceeding $500, or the statute defining the offense clearly indicates a legislative purpose to impose absolute liability for the conduct described." 720 ILCS 5/4-9 (West 1998).

The Illinois legislature has intended to limit the scope of absolute liability offenses. People v. Gean, 143 Ill. 2d 281, 285-86, 573 N.E.2d 818, 820 (1991), citing Ill. Ann. Stat., ch. 38, par. 4-9, Committee Comments--1961, at 226-28 (Smith-Hurd 1989) (now 720 ILCS Ann. 5/4-9, Committee Comments--1961, at 169-72 (Smith-Hurd 1993)). Absent clear indication that the legislature intended to impose absolute liability or an important public policy favoring absolute liability, courts are unwilling to interpret a statute as creating an absolute liability offense. Gean, 143 Ill. 2d at 286, 573 N.E.2d at 820-21; In re K.C., 186 Ill. 2d 542, 546, 714 N.E.2d 491, 494 (1999). Instead, if at all ...


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