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People v. Ringland

Supreme Court of Illinois

June 29, 2017

CARA M. RINGLAND et al., Appellees.

          FREEMAN JUSTICE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Thomas, Burke, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 Defendants, Cara Ringland, Steven Pirro, James Saxen, Steven Harris, and Matthew Flynn, were separately charged with felony drug offenses in the circuit court of La Salle County. In each case, a controlled substance was discovered during a traffic stop. These traffic stops were conducted by a special investigator appointed by Brian Towne, then State's Attorney of La Salle County, pursuant to section 3-9005(b) of the Counties Code (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(b) (West 2012)).

         ¶ 2 The circuit court granted each defendant's motion to quash arrest and suppress evidence. The appellate court affirmed, holding that the conduct of the special investigator exceeded the scope of section 3-9005(b). 2015 IL App (3d) 130523. This court allowed the State's petition for leave to appeal (Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. Jan. 1, 2015)), and we now affirm the judgment of the appellate court.

         ¶ 3 I. BACKGROUND

         ¶ 4 Jeffrey Gaither, a special investigator for the La Salle County State's Attorney, conducted a traffic stop against each defendant, beginning with Ringland on January 31, 2012, and continuing through Flynn on March 12, 2013. Each traffic stop occurred on Interstate 80 in La Salle County and resulted in the discovery of a controlled substance. Defendants Ringland, Pirro, and Flynn were each charged with felony possession with intent to deliver cannabis, and defendants Harris and Saxen were respectively charged with felony possession with intent to deliver cocaine and methamphetamine.

         ¶ 5 Each defendant filed a motion to quash arrest and suppress evidence contending, inter alia, that Gaither lacked the authority to conduct a traffic stop. Defendants Ringland, Harris, and Saxen specifically argued that Gaither lacked such authority because Towne failed to comply with section 3-9005(b)'s mandatory procedures in hiring Gaither and, alternatively, that section 3-9005(b) did not authorize Gaither to conduct traffic stops.

         ¶ 6 The circuit court held a hearing on each motion to suppress. Ringland called Towne and Gaither as witnesses. The other defendants and the State stipulated to the following testimony. Towne testified that in late 2011, he formed a team of special investigators, which he named the State's Attorney's Felony Enforcement (SAFE) unit. According to Towne: "Basically I was looking to have a drug interdiction team primarily on Interstate 80 with officers who had previous extensive experience in drug interdiction on Interstate 80 ***." Towne authorized the SAFE unit to operate on the Interstate "[t]hrough the statute for the duties and powers of the State's Attorney." On January 21, 2012, Towne swore in Gaither as a SAFE investigator and "then authorize[d] him to go out and enforce the law." Gaither testified that SAFE investigators "were hired to work on *** I-80 and look for narcotics traffickers and criminals" and "[t]o arrest people who were smuggling narcotics or proceeds from narcotics up and down the interstates in Illinois in La Salle County." Gaither received his paychecks from La Salle County, and he viewed himself "as an employee of the State's Attorney of La Salle County." He never took an oath as a deputy sheriff of La Salle County, and he never took an oath from the county sheriff in any regard. Gaither was provided a Ford Explorer equipped with emergency lights and a video camera. When asked what the purpose of that vehicle was, Gaither answered: "To make traffic stops."

         ¶ 7 At the suppression hearings for defendants Ringland and Pirro, Gaither further testified that, by prearranged plan, when a SAFE investigator would broadcast the initiation of a traffic stop, a drug-detection canine unit would automatically proceed to that location. Gaither also testified as to the factual circumstances surrounding the traffic stops for defendants Ringland, Pirro, and Saxen at their respective suppression hearings.[1]

         ¶ 8 The circuit court granted each defendant's motion to suppress. The court ruled that section 3-9005(b) required strict compliance with its background verification procedures prior to Gaither's appointment. According to the court, the statute unequivocally required that Gaither's fingerprints be taken and transmitted to the Illinois State Police, which would examine its records and relate any conviction information to the State's Attorney. The court found that these requirements were not met. For this reason, the court concluded that Gaither lacked the authority to conduct these traffic stops.

         ¶ 9 The State filed a notice of appeal from each suppression order (Ill. S.Ct. R. 604(a)(1) (eff. July 1, 2006)), and the appellate court consolidated the cases for review. 2015 IL App (3d) 130523, ¶ 6. The appellate court likewise concluded that Gaither lacked the authority to conduct the instant traffic stops. However, the appellate court based its conclusion on a different reason. "Leaving aside the issue of whether the State's Attorney either strictly or substantially complied with the fingerprint requirement of the statute, *** the conduct of both the SAFE unit and Gaither exceeded the scope of section 3-9005(b), rendering the traffic stops and arrests unlawful." Id. ¶ 34. For that reason, the appellate court affirmed each suppression order.

         ¶ 10 On August 16, 2015, the Illinois Attorney General, the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, and Towne filed a petition for leave to appeal on behalf of the State, which we allowed on November 25, 2015.[2] During briefing in this court, Karen Donnelly defeated Towne in the November 2016 general election. On December 1, 2016, Donnelly took office as La Salle County State's Attorney. Additional pertinent background will be discussed in the context of our analysis of the issues.

         ¶ 11 II. ANALYSIS

         ¶ 12 Before this court, the State assigns error to the appellate court's affirmance of the circuit court's suppression orders. The State contends, inter alia, that section 3-9005(b) authorized Towne to create his SAFE unit and empower his special investigators to conduct traffic stops. We apply the two-part standard of review adopted by the United States Supreme Court in Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 699 (1996). Under this standard, the circuit court's factual findings are upheld unless they are against the manifest weight of the evidence. "The reviewing court then assesses the established facts in relation to the issues presented and may reach its own conclusions as to what relief, if any, should be allowed. Accordingly, the ultimate legal question of whether suppression is warranted is reviewed de novo." People v. Hunt, 2012 IL 111089, ¶ 22; People v. Harris, 228 Ill.2d 222, 230 (2008). Resolution of this issue requires us to construe the relevant statutory language. Our review is de novo also because the construction of a statute is a question of law. People v. Gutman, 2011 IL 110338, ¶ 12.

         ¶ 13 The primary objective in construing a statute is to ascertain and give effect to the intent of the legislature. The most reliable indicator of legislative intent is the language of the statute, given its plain and ordinary meaning. A court must view the statute as a whole, construing words and phrases in light of other relevant statutory provisions and not in isolation. Each word, clause, and sentence of a statute must be given a reasonable meaning, if possible, and should not be rendered superfluous. The court may consider the reason for the law, the problems sought to be remedied, the purposes to be achieved, and the consequences of construing the statute one way or another. Also, a court presumes that the General Assembly did not intend to create absurd, inconvenient, or unjust results. People v. Perez, 2014 IL 115927, ¶ 9; People v. Hunter, 2013 IL 114100, ¶ 13.

         ¶ 14 Section 3-9005(b) of the Counties Code provides in relevant part: "The State's Attorney of each county shall have authority to appoint one or more special investigators to [(1)] serve subpoenas, [(2)] make return of process and [(3)] conduct investigations which assist the State's Attorney in the performance of his duties." 55 ILCS 5/3-9005(b) (West 2012). Section 3-9005(b) expressly limits its investigation authorization to those investigations that assist a State's Attorney in the performance of his or her duties. Id. Further, based on its plain language, the appellate court correctly observed that this is an exclusive list (2015 IL App (3d) 130523, ¶ 37), and the State does not argue otherwise before this court.

         ¶ 15 Towne and Gaither each testified that SAFE investigators did not serve subpoenas, make return of process, or investigate pending cases. Towne further testified that his office had not opened any investigation concerning Ringland and that she did not come to Towne's attention until after she was arrested.[3] Thus, to be valid, the instant traffic stops, by themselves, must constitute investigations that assist a State's Attorney in the performance of his or her duties.

         ¶ 16 The appellate court could not understand "how patrolling Interstate 80, issuing warning tickets, and confiscating contraband can be realistically viewed as 'conducting investigations that assist the State's Attorney with his duties.' The prosecution of drug dealers and traffickers is indisputably a duty of the State's Attorney; outfitting his own drug interdiction unit is not." Id. ¶ 42.

         ¶ 17 Before this court, the State contends that section 3-9005(b) authorizes the SAFE unit to conduct traffic stops because "State's Attorneys have a duty to investigate suspected illegal activity." In response, defendant Harris contends that the SAFE unit exceeded the scope of its section 3-9005(b) authorization to investigate because the duties of a State's Attorney "involve working in the court system to prosecute offenders, and do not involve acting as a police agency." Resolution of this issue requires discussion of the powers and duties of a State's Attorney.

         ¶ 18 The office of State's Attorney is constitutionally established. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, § 19; see Ill. Const. 1870, art. VI, §§ 22, 32.[4] A State's Attorney is a state, rather than a county, official. County of Cook ex rel. Rifkin v. Bear Stearns & Company., Inc., 215 Ill.2d 466, 475 (2005); Ingemunson v. Hedges, 133 Ill.2d 364, 369-70 (1990). Although the State's Attorney provision is located in the judicial article of the 1970 Illinois Constitution, the office of State's Attorney is considered part of the executive branch of government, and State's Attorneys exercise executive powers. Nelson v. Kendall County, 2014 IL 116303, ¶¶ 27, 31.

         ¶ 19 The State's Attorney provision contains no reference to the powers and duties of the office. Ill. Const. 1970, art. VI, § 19; Rifkin, 215 Ill.2d at 477. Similarly, the 1870 Constitution did not prescribe the specific duties of the State's Attorney. Ashton v. County of Cook, 384 Ill. 287, 296-97 (1943). This court has consistently held that the 1870 Constitution conferred upon the State's Attorney common-law powers and duties analogous to those of the Attorney General, which the legislature may add thereto but may not subtract therefrom. See People ex rel. Kunstman v. Nagano, 389 Ill. 231, 247-49 (1945); People ex rel. Courtney v. Ashton, 358 Ill. 146, 150-51 (1934); Fergus v. Russel, 270 Ill. 304, 335-42 (1915) (attorney general). The 1970 Constitution "does not change the common law or statutory duties of State's Attorneys." ILCS Ann., 1970 Const., art. VI, § 19, Constitutional Commentary, at 234 (Smith-Hurd 2006); see Rifkin, 215 Ill.2d at 478 ("The State's Attorney's powers are analogous to and largely coincident with those of the Attorney General and it follows, therefore, that the legislature may not usurp those constitutionally derived powers."). Thus, although the powers of State's Attorneys are constitutionally established, legislation and case law prescribe certain duties. People ex rel. Alvarez v. Gaughan, 2016 IL 120110, ¶ 30; see Fergus, 270 Ill. at 336 (attorney general).

         ¶ 20 Section 3-9005(a) prescribes certain powers and duties of the State's Attorney. "The duty of each State's attorney shall be" (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a) (West 2012)): to commence and prosecute all actions, suits, indictments, and prosecutions, civil and criminal, in the circuit court for his or her county, in which the people of the State or county may be concerned; all actions and proceedings brought by any county officer in his or her official capacity (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(1), (a)(3) (West 2012)); to prosecute charges of felony or misdemeanor, for which the offender is required to be recognized to appear before the circuit court (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(6) (West 2012)); to prosecute all forfeited bonds and recognizances and all actions and proceedings for the recovery of debts, revenues, moneys, fines, penalties, and forfeitures accruing to the State or his or her county or to any school district or road district in the county; to prosecute all suits in the county against railroad or transportation companies, which may be prosecuted in the name of the People of the State of Illinois (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(2) (West 2012)); to defend all actions and proceedings brought against his or her county, or against any county or State officer, in an official capacity, within the county (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(4) (West 2012)); to attend the examination of all persons brought before any judge on habeas corpus, when the prosecution is in his or her county (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(5) (West 2012)); to give his or her opinion, without fee or reward, to any county officer in the county, upon any question or law relating to any criminal or other matter, in which the people or the county may be concerned (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(7) (West 2012)); to assist the Attorney General whenever necessary (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(8) (West 2012)); to pay, without delay, all moneys received in trust to the officer who by law is entitled to the custody thereof (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(9) (West 2012)); to notify, by first class mail, complaining witnesses of the ultimate disposition of cases arising from an indictment or an information and to notify various school officials upon the felony conviction of a teacher or educator (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(10), (a)(13) (West 2012)); to appear in all proceedings by tax collectors against delinquent taxpayers for judgments to sell real estate and see that all the necessary preliminary steps have been legally taken to make the judgment legal and binding (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(12) (West 2012)); and "[t]o perform such other and further duties as may, from time to time, be enjoined on him by law" (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(11) (West 2012)). We have recognized that "the enumeration of a State's Attorney's duties in section 3-9005 is not meant to be all-inclusive or restrictive, as evinced by subsection (a)(11)'s broad, catchall language." Gaughan, 2016 IL 120110, ¶ 30.

         ¶ 21 In the case at bar, defendants Harris and Saxen correctly observe that nowhere does section 3-9005(a) prescribe that a State's Attorney patrol the highways, engage in law enforcement, and conduct drug interdiction. However, the State argues that a State's Attorney's duty to investigate is found in common law. We now look to common law for this duty and any attendant conditions or limitations.

         ¶ 22 Illinois case law prescribes duties of a State's Attorney in addition to those enumerated in section 3-9005(a). Ware v. Carey, 75 Ill.App.3d 906, 913-14 (1979) (and cases cited therein). These duties are in recognition that the State's Attorney is vested with wide discretion in enforcing the criminal laws and has the responsibility of evaluating evidence and other pertinent factors and determining what, if any, offense may be charged. People v. Williams, 147 Ill.2d 173, 256 (1991) (and cases cited therein). Courts recognize that the role of a public prosecutor in our legal system has two distinct aspects. On the one hand, a prosecutor functions as an advocate for the State by evaluating evidence and interviewing witnesses in preparing for the initiation of a prosecution or for judicial proceedings. On the other hand, a prosecutor may also perform "the investigative functions normally performed by a detective or police officer" by searching for the clues and corroboration that might furnish probable cause to recommend that a suspect be arrested. Buckley v. Fitzsimmons, 509 U.S. 259, 273 (1993); see Bianchi v. McQueen, 2016 IL App (2d) 150646, ¶ 52; White v. City of Chicago, 369 Ill.App.3d 765, 769-71 (2006). Generally, Illinois case law recognizes that a State's Attorney has an affirmative duty to investigate the facts and determine whether an offense has been committed. See, e.g., McCall v. Devine, 334 Ill.App.3d 192, 204 (2002); People v. Nohren, 283 Ill.App.3d 753, 758 (1996); Ware, 75 Ill.App.3d at 913-14; People v. Pohl, 47 Ill.App.2d 232, 242 (1964).

         ¶ 23 At Ringland's suppression hearing, Towne testified that the conduct of the SAFE unit helped him in the performance of his duties, pursuant to section 3-9005(b), because one of his duties was "the eradication of narcotic trafficking here in La Salle County." Before this court, the State argues that the execution of traffic stops by the SAFE unit assists the State's Attorney in his or her common-law duty to investigate suspected illegal activity. According to the State: "Where State's Attorneys have resources that can contribute to law enforcement efforts to fight crime, neither Section 3-9005(b) nor the common law bars them from contributing those resources in service of the law enforcement community's shared duty to maintain the rule of law."

         ¶ 24 Close analysis of the State's Attorney's common-law duty to investigate suspected illegal activity reveals a significant limitation on its exercise. The State's Attorney's duty to investigate suspected illegal activity acknowledges that a prosecutor ordinarily relies on police and other agencies for investigation of criminal acts. See Williams, 147 Ill.2d at 256 (quoting ABA Standards for Criminal Justice, Standard 3-3.1(a) (2d ed. 1980)); People v. Mitts, 327 Ill.App.3d 1, 16 (2001); Nohren, 283 Ill.App.3d at 758 (quoting ABA Standards for Criminal Justice, Standard 3-3.1(a) (3d ed. 1993)); Wa ...

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