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People v. Ellis

February 22, 2002

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLANT,
v.
HARRY W. ELLIS, APPELLEE.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kilbride

Released for publication March 29, 2002.

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, APPELLANT,
v.
HARRY W. ELLIS, APPELLEE.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Kilbride

PUBLISHED

Docket No. 89649-Agenda 11-March 2001.

 In this case we are asked to decide whether Illinois will recognize the "exculpatory no" doctrine as an exception to criminal liability for obstruction of justice pursuant to section 31-4(a) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (Code) (720 ILCS 5/31-4 (West 1996)). We answer that question in the negative.

On October 25, 1996, the Lake County State's Attorney filed an information against defendant, Harry W. Ellis, alleging attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to section 31-4(a) of the Code and unlawful display of vehicular registration pursuant to section 4-104(a) of the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/4-104(a) (West 1996)). Specifically, the State alleged that defendant was operating a motor vehicle without proper registration and, when detained by a police officer, provided false information regarding his identity. The State also charged defendant with driving on a revoked license.

A jury convicted defendant of one count of attempted obstruction of justice but acquitted him of unlawful display of registration. Defendant was also convicted of driving on a revoked license. Defendant appealed, arguing that he was denied effective assistance of counsel and that the State improperly bolstered the credibility of police witnesses at trial. The appellate court did not reach the issues defendant raised and instead ruled sua sponte that defendant's conviction must be overturned under the "exculpatory no doctrine." No. 2-98-0832 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23).

We allowed the State's petition for leave to appeal. 166 Ill. 2d R. 315(a). We reverse and remand.

I. BACKGROUND

Officer Tony Moran testified that he worked as a police officer in Grayslake. He testified that, on October 4, 1996, he was on patrol and noticed a car being driven with no rear registration sticker. Moran stopped the car and asked the driver for identification and proof of insurance. According to Moran, the driver claimed that he did not have his license with him, that his name was Gary Harris, and that his date of birth was September 14, 1954.

Moran returned to his car and ran a computerized background check. The background check revealed that Illinois databases contained no record of a licensed driver with that name and date of birth. When Moran returned and confronted the driver with this information, the driver suggested that Moran try checking Colorado. Similarly, a background check revealed that Colorado databases contained no record of a licensed driver with that name and date of birth. Moran again confronted the driver. The driver maintained that his name was Gary Harris, but that his date of birth was October 14, 1954. Moran still found no information in either Illinois or Colorado databases. Moran wrote on his notepad the name Gary Harris and both dates of birth that the driver had given him. Moran showed the notepad to the driver and was told that it was correct. Moran "knew [the driver] was lying *** or obstructing a peace officer" and placed him under arrest.

Moran subsequently searched the car's glove compartment and found a driver's abstract containing the name Harry Ellis, born October 14, 1956. The abstract contained a physical description that matched that of the driver. Another background check revealed that the Illinois Secretary of State had revoked Harry Ellis' driver's license. Under Moran's questioning, the driver admitted that his name was Harry Ellis and that his date of birth was October 14, 1956.

The State also called Officer Randolph Heglund, who had arrived on the scene as backup during the second background check. His testimony corroborated Moran's.

Defendant testified on his own behalf. Defendant testified that he was stopped by Moran while driving a car belonging to a gentleman named Gary Beckman. He claimed that, when Moran asked his name, he replied "Harry Ellis." Defendant also testified to a continuing error on his Illinois driver's license abstract, misstating his birth date as October 4, 1956. He added that he never had an opportunity to explain this problem to Moran.

The defense also presented the testimony of Ricardo Javier and Lucy Ora. Javier and Ora were passengers in the car at the time of the stop. They both testified that defendant gave his correct name and date of birth to Moran.

Defendant was convicted of driving on a revoked license and attempted obstruction of justice but acquitted of unlawful display of registration. The trial court sentenced defendant to a six-month jail term. The court stayed defendant's sentence pending the successful completion of a one-year term of probation.

Defendant appealed, arguing that he was denied effective assistance of counsel and that the State improperly bolstered the credibility of police witnesses at trial. The appellate court did not reach these issues and instead ruled sua sponte that defendant's conviction must be overturned under the "exculpatory no doctrine." The appellate court found that defendant should not have been prosecuted for attempted obstruction of justice when he was the target of an officer's investigation and a truthful revelation of his name would have been tantamount to an admission of driving with a revoked license. 625 ILCS 5/6-303 (West 1996). The appellate court reasoned that, despite the absence of briefing or argument on the issue, justice required application of the doctrine to avoid a grave error of law.

We granted the State's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315.

II. ANALYSIS

The issue of whether a defendant can rely upon the exculpatory no doctrine to escape criminal liability pursuant to section 31-4(a) of the Code is a question of law and therefore our review is de novo. Department of Public ...


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