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People v. Belk

January 24, 2003


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Rarick

Docket No. 92937-Agenda 20-September 2002.

The sole issue in this case is whether aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle can be considered to be a forcible felony for purposes of the felony-murder rule. The defendant, John Belk, stole a van and, while being pursued by police at a high rate of speed, crashed into another vehicle, killing both occupants. Following a bench trial in the circuit court of Cook County, Belk was convicted of two counts of felony murder and one count of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle. The appellate court reversed, holding that the felony-murder statute was not intended to apply in situations where the defendant's conduct was only reckless. 326 Ill. App. 3d 290. We granted the State's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill. 2d R. 315. For the reasons that follow, we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

The relevant facts are as follows. On the evening of May 14, 1998, Belk, age 16, and another person broke into a van and stole it. Residents in a nearby apartment complex heard the sound of breaking glass and observed two men breaking into the van and called police. Sergeant Craig Kincaid of the Blue Island police department was on duty that night. Upon receiving a radio dispatch regarding an automobile theft in progress and a description of the vehicle, Kincaid activated his emergency lights and siren on his patrol vehicle and drove toward the location of the crime.

As Kincaid was approaching the intersection of 127th Street and Vincennes, he observed a van matching the description of the stolen vehicle heading towards him. Kincaid made a U-turn and, with his lights and siren still activated, began pursuing the van. The van continued west on 127th Street at about 60 miles per hour for one block, then made a sharp right turn into a Walgreen's parking lot. The van sped through the pharmacy drive-through lane, around the Walgreen's building, then proceeded north on Western Avenue.

Once on Western Avenue and with police still in pursuit, the van increased its speed. As it approached 115th Street, the van was traveling at over 100 miles per hour. The posted speed limit in that area was 30 miles per hour. This section of Western Avenue had numerous restaurants and other establishments that were still open for business. Kincaid testified that there was other vehicular traffic present on Western Avenue and that there were pedestrians on the sidewalk. The other vehicles were pulling over to the side of the road and the van was passing them.

At the intersection of 111th Street and Western Avenue, the van crashed into the rear of the victims' car, propelling it 375 feet from the point of impact. The victims, Tom and Joanna Peragine, died as a result of injuries sustained in the crash.

The van flipped over and landed 330 feet from the point of impact, where it caught fire. Belk crawled out of the van and attempted to flee on foot, but was tackled by a police officer. Belk began kicking the officer, but the officer subdued him and placed him under arrest. Belk was taken to the emergency room of a nearby hospital for treatment of his injuries. While there, a toxicology test was performed. The test revealed that Belk's blood-alcohol level was 0.19.

The trial court found Belk guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of two counts of felony murder and one count of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle, determining that Belk's commission of the felony of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle proximately caused the death of the victims. The court sentenced Belk to a term of natural life.

Belk appealed, arguing that because aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle was not an enumerated forcible felony under the felony-murder statute or a forcible felony threatening violence against individuals, his conviction should be reduced to reckless homicide. The appellate court agreed, holding that the evidence presented at trial demonstrated that while Belk acted recklessly, his actions did not fall within the purview of the felony-murder statute. Specifically, the appellate court held that the evidence did not support an inference that Belk contemplated violence or acted intentionally when his vehicle struck that of the victims, or that he intended to kill or cause great bodily harm to anyone who got in his way. The appellate court concluded that while the evidence clearly demonstrated that Belk was determined to elude capture and that he drove the van in a reckless manner, it did not show that he intended to kill anyone during the course of his attempt to escape. The appellate court reduced Belk's conviction to reckless homicide, vacated his sentence of natural life, and remanded the cause for resentencing.

On appeal, the State argues that the appellate court erred in holding that the felony-murder rule did not apply because Belk's conduct was merely reckless and he did not intend to kill the victims. The State contends that the felony-murder rule does not require an intent to kill and that an intent to kill is irrelevant to the determination of whether a felony qualifies as a forcible felony.

The primary goal in construing a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. People v. Richardson, 196 Ill. 2d 225, 228 (2001). Legislative intent is best ascertained by examining the language of the statute itself. People v. Robinson, 172 Ill. 2d 452, 457 (1996). Where the language is clear and unambiguous, there is no need to resort to aids of statutory construction. People v. Pullen, 192 Ill. 2d 36, 42 (2000). Because the construction of a statute is a question of law, review is de novo. Richardson, 196 Ill. 2d at 228.

Aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle is a Class 1 felony and occurs when "a person *** who is the driver or operator of a vehicle and is not entitled to the possession of that vehicle and who knows the vehicle is stolen or converted *** who has been given a signal by a peace officer directing him to bring the vehicle to a stop, to willfully fail or refuse to obey such direction, increase his speed, extinguish his lights or otherwise flee or attempt to elude the officer." 625 ILCS 5/4-103.2(a)(7) (West 1996). Belk does not dispute that he was guilty of this offense.

Section 9-1(a)(3) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (Code) provides that "[a] person who kills an individual without lawful justification commits first degree murder if, in performing the acts which cause the death *** he is attempting or committing a forcible felony other that second degree murder." 720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(3) (West 1996). Under the felony-murder statute, a felon is responsible for the direct and foreseeable consequences of his actions. People v. Lowery, 178 Ill. 2d 462, 470 (1997). The purpose behind the felony-murder statute is to limit the violence that accompanies the commission of forcible felonies, so that anyone engaged in such violence will be automatically subject to a murder prosecution should someone be killed during the commission of a forcible felony. People v. Shaw, 186 Ill. 2d 301, 322 (1998), citing People v. Dennis, 181 Ill. 2d 87, 105 (1998).

Section 2-8 of the Code defines "[f]orcible felony" as "treason, first degree murder, second degree murder, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual assault, robbery, burglary, residential burglary, aggravated arson, arson, aggravated kidnaping, kidnaping, aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement and any other felony which involves the ...

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