Appeal from the Circuit Court of McHenry County. No. 99-MR-153 Honorable Thomas A. Schermerhorn, Sr., Judge, Presiding
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Bowman
The State charged claimant, Eric V. Wassilak, with unlawful possession of a controlled substance (720 ILCS 570/402(c) (West 1998)). Claimant moved to suppress evidence that he alleged was obtained illegally. The circuit court granted the motion. The day after that ruling, the State filed a petition to forfeit a car claimant allegedly used in the drug offense. Relying on the suppression order, claimant moved in limine to bar evidence that the car contained controlled substances. The circuit court granted the motion. After holding a hearing at which the State put on no evidence, the court denied the forfeiture petition. Later, pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 137 (155 Ill. 2d R. 137), the circuit court sanctioned the State. The court found that the forfeiture petition was frivolous because the State filed it knowing that the circuit court had just suppressed the evidence that the State would need to prevail in the forfeiture case. The State timely appealed.
On appeal, the State does not contest the denial of its forfeiture petition. However, it argues that the circuit court abused its discretion in sanctioning the State. The State asserts that, when it filed the petition, it had several reasonable grounds to believe that the trial court's suppression order in the criminal case did not make the forfeiture suit frivolous. The State also asserts that the court did not follow Rule 137 and that the trial judge denied the State a fair hearing on the sanctions petition.
We hold that because the mere existence of the suppression order did not make the filing of the forfeiture petition unreasonable, the circuit court abused its discretion in sanctioning the State. We need not consider whether the trial court misapplied Rule 137 or denied the State a fair hearing. We reverse the sanctions award and otherwise affirm the judgment.
The Facts Are as Follows.
On April 26, 1999, a police officer stopped claimant for driving with an obstructed view (625 ILCS 5/12-503(c) (West 1998)), searched claimant and his car, and found illegal drugs. Claimant was charged with unlawful possession of a controlled substance. He moved to suppress the drugs, arguing that the stop of his car was unconstitutional. On July 7, 1999, the trial court granted the motion to suppress.
On July 8, 1999, the State filed a petition alleging that claimant's car was subject to forfeiture under the Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act (Forfeiture Act) (725 ILCS 150/1 et seq. (West 1998)) because it had been used in the drug offense. Claimant filed an answer. Relying on the suppression order in the criminal case, claimant also moved in limine to bar the State from introducing any items the police found in the car or eliciting any testimony that a controlled substance was found in the car.
On January 31, 2000, after the State appealed the suppression order but before this court decided that appeal, the circuit court held a hearing. The parties first argued the motion in limine. Claimant asserted that the State could not introduce illegally obtained evidence at the forfeiture hearing. He reasoned that the court had already decided that the search of the car was illegal and that the State could not relitigate that issue. The State responded in part that it had appealed the suppression order and that the criminal case was still pending in the circuit court.
The Trial Court Granted the Motion in Limine.
The judge explained that the State filed the forfeiture petition in order to circumvent his earlier ruling that the search of the car was unconstitutional. Thus, the circuit court had barred the evidence and the State could not use it in this proceeding.
After the State declined to dismiss the suit voluntarily, the case proceeded to a hearing. However, conceding it now had no evidence to present, the State immediately rested. The trial court granted claimant a judgment. Over the State's objection, the court ordered that, pursuant to the Forfeiture Act, the State's Attorney's office would pay claimant's costs and attorney fees.
On March 1, 2000, claimant filed a petition for sanctions. The petition alleged in part that the forfeiture suit was frivolous because the State should have realized that collateral estoppel barred the State from using evidence that the court had suppressed in the criminal case. Claimant conceded that the Forfeiture Act did not empower the court to assess costs or attorney fees against the State. However, he noted that Rule 137 gave the court such power upon a timely petition, and he asked the court to treat his petition as one for Rule 137 sanctions.
The State responded that, for a variety of reasons, the forfeiture petition was not frivolous even though the order in the criminal case had suppressed the evidence the State needed in the forfeiture case. The State maintained in part that, when it filed the forfeiture petition, the appellate court had yet to decide the State's appeal from the suppression order. The attorneys who filed the petition might reasonably hope that this court would reverse ...