United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division
For John Bills, Defendant: Nishay Kumar Sanan, LEAD ATTORNEY, Nishay K. Sanan, Esq., Chicago, IL.
For USA, Plaintiff: Carrie E. Hamilton, Laurie J Barsella, LEAD ATTORNEYS, AUSA, United States Attorney's Office (NDIL), Chicago, IL; Pretrial Services.
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
Virginia M. Kendall, United States District Judge.
The Government charged Defendant John Bills, the former Managing Deputy Commissioner for the City of Chicago's Department of Transportation, with fraud in connection with a scheme involving accepting bribes in exchange for steering the Chicago Red Light Camera Program towards contracting with Redflex Traffic Systems, a vendor of the camera systems. Specifically, the Indictment charges Bills with twenty counts in total, including mail fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1341 (Counts I-IX); wire fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1343 (Counts X-XII); extortion in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a) (Count XIII); conspiracy to defraud the United States in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Count XIV); solicitation and acceptance of bribes concerning a program that receives federal funds in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 666(a)(1)(B) (Counts XV-XVII); and submitting fraudulent tax returns in violation of 26 U.S.C. § 7206(1) (Counts XXI-XXIII). See Dkt. No. 20. Bills now moves for a change of trial venue pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 21(a) (Dkt. No. 66), arguing that the coverage in the Chicago news media about his prosecution, and the red light camera program in general, has been so pervasive and negative that an impartial jury cannot be empaneled. For the reasons discussed below, the Court denies Bills's motion.
The events leading up to this case stem from the City of Chicago's contract with Redflex Traffic Systems for the installation, maintenance, and operation of Chicago's first red light camera program in October 2003. Defendant John Bills worked for Chicago from June 1979 until he retired in June 2011. Relevant to the instant proceedings, Bills was the Managing Deputy Commissioner of Chicago's Department of Transportation. In this position, Bills managed Chicago's red light camera program since its initiation in late 2002 until his retirement in 2011. Redflex developed and manufactured digital photo traffic enforcement systems, including red light cameras. The other defendants in the case, Martin O'Malley and Karen Finley, worked for Redflex.
In October 2003, Chicago and Redflex entered into a contract for the installation and operation of the red light cameras. The Government alleges that Chicago awarded Redflex the contract at Bills's instruction after he received bribes and personal financial benefits from Redflex. In 2012, the Chicago Tribune began reporting on the relationship between Bills and Redflex in connection with the red light camera contract. The Government
indicted Bills on August 13, 2014, charging him with twenty counts. Bills now moves for a change of venue for his trial, arguing that the pretrial publicity and media coverage in this case makes it impossible for him to receive a fair trial in the Northern District of Illinois.
Although the Constitution provides that trials should occur in the " district wherein the crime shall have been committed," U.S. Const. amend. VI, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure create an exception when pretrial prejudice warrants a change of venue. " Upon the defendant's motion, the court must transfer the proceeding against the defendant to another district if the court is satisfied that so great a prejudice against the defendant exists in the transferring district that the defendant cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial there." Fed. R. Crim. P. 21(a). A transfer is warranted if " extraordinary local prejudice will prevent a fair trial--a 'basic requirement of due process.'" Skilling v. United States, 561 U.S. 358, 378, 130 S.Ct. 2896, 177 L.Ed.2d 619 (2010) (quoting In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 136, 75 S.Ct. 623, 99 L.Ed. 942 (1955)). The Court maintains discretion to grant or deny a change of venue motion. See United States v. Philpot, 733 F.3d 734, 740 (7th Cir. 2013) (courts of appeals review decisions concerning a change of venue for abuse of discretion, which means that the facts must " compel--and not merely support--a finding that a change in venue is necessary" ) (citation omitted)).
Seeking transfer of venue to the United States District Court for the District of Nevada, Bills argues that pretrial publicity has tainted the jury pool in the Northern District of Illinois so tremendously that a change of venue is the only way to preserve his right to fair trial under the Fifth and Sixth Amendments to the United States Constitution. " Extensive pretrial publicity does not, in itself, render a trial unfair and violate a defendant's right to due process." Willard v. Pearson, 823 F.2d 1141, 1146 (7th Cir. 1987). Nor does juror impartiality require ignorance of the circumstances surrounding the charged activity. See Skilling, 561 U.S. at 380 (" Prominence does not necessarily produce prejudice, and juror impartiality. . . does not require ignorance." ); see also Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717, 722, 81 S.Ct. 1639, 6 L.Ed.2d 751 (1961) (jurors are not required to be " totally ignorant of the facts and issues involved" ; " scarcely any of those best qualified to serve as jurors will not have formed some impression or opinion as to the merits of the case." ). Instead, " [p]rejudice can be established by either a showing of actual prejudice, for example, when jurors can be shown to have exposure to pretrial publicity that prevents them from judging the case ...