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People v. Benton

June 22, 2001

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
CHARLES BENTON, A/K/A CHARLES BENTON-BEY, DEFENDANT-APPELLEE.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 14th Judicial Circuit, Rock Island County, Illinois No. 00--TR--14948 Honorable Dennis DePorter, Judge Presiding

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Presiding Justice Homer

NOT RELEASED FOR PUBLICATION

Defendant Charles Benton, also known as Charles Benton-Bey, was charged with operating an uninsured motor vehicle (625 ILCS 5/3--707 (West 1998)). At defendant's first appearance, the trial court dismissed the case on its own motion, holding that Illinois' mandatory liability insurance law does not apply to vehicles registered in foreign states. The State moved for reconsideration. Upon reconsideration, the court confirmed the dismissal, and the State appeals. We affirm.

The record shows that defendant was arrested while driving a 1979 Buick within the City of Rock Island. The vehicle had an Iowa registration number and "applied for" license tag, and defendant's driver's license showed a Davenport, Iowa, home address. Based on this information on the face of the traffic citation, the trial court dismissed the insurance violation charge sua sponte. In its formal written order, the court also noted that if the mandatory liability insurance statute applied to nonresident motorists, it would violate the commerce clause of the United States Constitution (U.S. Const., art. I, §8).

Subsequently, at the hearing on the State's motion for reconsideration, the arresting officer testified that he asked defendant if the vehicle was insured, and defendant said that it was not. The officer then cited defendant for a violation of section 3--707 of the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/3-707 (West 1998). After taking the cause under advisement, the court concluded that the legislature did not intend for the mandatory liability insurance statute to apply to vehicles registered in other states. Accordingly, the court ruled that its original order dismissing the charge was proper.

On appeal, the State argues that (1) the trial court lacked authority to dismiss the complaint on its own motion; (2) the court's interpretation of the statute was erroneous; and (3) applying the statute to nonresident drivers does not violate the commerce clause. Defendant has not filed a brief; therefore, we consider the case on the State's brief and our independent research. See First Capitol Mortgage Corp. v. Talandis Construction Corp., 63 Ill. 2d 128, 345 N.E.2d 493 (1976).

Initially, we reject the State's contention that the trial court lacked authority to dismiss the charge on its own motion. Upon motion of the defendant, a trial court may dismiss a charging instrument that fails to state an offense. 725 ILCS 5/114--1(a)(8) (West 1998). A judge's sua sponte dismissal of a complaint may be error where no notice or opportunity to respond to the court's motion is given. See, e.g., People v. Kitchen, 189 Ill. 2d 424, 727 N.E.2d 189 (1999). However, where, as here, the State was given ample opportunity to develop a response to the court's motion and present its position at a hearing, the State cannot claim prejudice. Therefore, a reversal based on the pro se defendant's failure to file the motion on his own behalf is unwarranted. See Perry v. Minor, 319 Ill. App. 3d 703, 745 N.E.2d 113 (2001).

Next, we consider the State's argument that the trial court erred in ruling that the mandatory liability insurance law does not apply to nonresident drivers. This is apparently an issue of first impression in Illinois.

Section 3--707 of the Illinois Vehicle Code provides, in relevant part, as follows:

"No person shall operate a motor vehicle unless the motor vehicle is covered by a liability insurance policy in accordance with Section 7--601 of this Code.

***

Any operator of a motor vehicle subject to registration under this Code who is convicted of violating this Section is guilty of a business offense and shall be required to pay a fine in excess of $500, but not more than $1,000." (Emphasis added.) 625 ILCS 5/3-- 707 (West 1998).

The statute appears ambiguous in that it initially proscribes the operation of any motor vehicle without liability insurance, but it penalizes only those who operate such a vehicle if the vehicle is required to be registered in Illinois.

Vehicles subject to registration and those exempt from registration in Illinois are addressed in section 3--402. That ...


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