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People v. Reese

Supreme Court of Illinois

October 19, 2017

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, Appellant and Cross-Appellee,
WILLIS REESE, Appellee and Cross-Appellant.

          JUSTICE KILBRIDE delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion Chief Justice Karmeier and Justices Freeman, Thomas, Garman, and Theis concurred in the judgment and opinion.



         ¶ 1 The primary issue in this appeal is whether the offense of aggravated vehicular hijacking (720 ILCS 5/18-4(a)(3) (West 2006)) requires proof that the defendant took actual physical possession of a vehicle from the driver. We hold that the offense encompasses taking actual physical possession of a vehicle but may also be committed when a defendant exercises control of the vehicle by use of force or threat of force with the victim still present. Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part the appellate court's judgment.

         ¶ 2 BACKGROUND

         ¶ 3 Defendant Willis Reese was charged with several offenses, including aggravated vehicular hijacking (720 ILCS 5/18-4(a)(3) (West 2006)), vehicular invasion (720 ILCS 5/12-11.1 (West 2006)), attempted armed robbery (720 ILCS 5/8-4, 18-2 (West 2006)), and escape (720 ILCS 5/31-6 (West 2006)). The public defender was appointed to represent defendant, but defendant subsequently informed the trial court that he wished to proceed pro se.

         ¶ 4 The Cook County trial court admonished defendant about his right to appointed counsel and the potential of nonextended and extended-term sentences for the charged offenses. The trial court also informed defendant that some of his sentences could run consecutively and that two of the charges alone carried a potential maximum term of 160 years. The court summarized, "Basically, you are looking at massive time if you are convicted." The trial court did not admonish defendant that any potential sentences would also be served consecutively to his natural-life sentence for his unrelated first degree murder conviction. When asked if he understood the potential penalties, defendant stated, "Perfectly, Your Honor, perfectly." After completing the admonishments, the trial court permitted appointed counsel to withdraw and defendant to represent himself.

         ¶ 5 Prior to jury selection, defendant asked to have his leg shackles removed before potential jurors entered the courtroom. The trial court told defendant that his hands would be free and both counsel tables would be covered with drapes to block any view of his leg shackles. Defendant expressed concern that the jurors would be able to hear the shackles if he moved. He also asserted that he was there "to do a thorough job" and he "[could] not work under these conditions." The trial court told defendant the decision on removing the shackles was within the discretion of the Department of Corrections. When defendant continued to express concern, the trial court stated, "You are preaching to the choir. All you have to do is talk to the men in charge. If you can convince those three men that you don't need leg shackles, you don't have to have them on."

         ¶ 6 Following a recess, defendant asked if he would be shackled "when trial officially starts." The trial court responded, "That's up to the Illinois Department of Corrections." Defendant stated, "The only way they are going to come off is by court order" and reiterated that he "cannot work under these conditions." The court asserted it would take the matter under advisement and make a decision the next day.

         ¶ 7 During jury selection, defendant asked the court to consider an issue without the jurors present. After the trial court removed the prospective jurors from the courtroom, defendant stated he believed two of them saw his leg shackles through an area of the counsel table left uncovered by the drapes. The trial court brought those potential jurors into the courtroom separately. The first one stated she could not see behind the drapes. Defendant, nevertheless, removed her with a peremptory challenge. The second potential juror stated he saw "a little belt on [defendant's] strap between his feet, " but assured the court that what he saw would not affect his ability to be fair. After questioning the prospective juror, defendant decided not to challenge him for cause or exercise a peremptory challenge.

         ¶ 8 When the three remaining members of the panel were brought back into the courtroom, the court asked if anything about defendant's appearance "with this drapery in front of him" would affect their ability to be fair. One of the potential jurors responded, "No I guess" and asked if there was "something we should know that we don't know because now I am confused." The trial court stated there was nothing the jurors should know. The other two potential jurors did not respond to the court's inquiry. The parties then accepted the four-member panel.

         ¶ 9 After concluding voir dire, the trial court addressed the State's motion to introduce defendant's prior murder conviction as evidence of his motive to escape and for impeachment if defendant chose to testify. The State sought to present a certified copy of the charging instrument from defendant's prior murder case to prove that he was found guilty three days before trying to escape and "to introduce evidence of the potential sentence he was facing insofar as it relates to motive." The trial court ruled that evidence could not be presented in the State's case-in-chief but a certified copy of defendant's prior murder conviction could be used for impeachment if he chose to testify.

         ¶ 10 The next day, the trial court ordered removal of defendant's shackles during trial. The State called Cook County sheriff's Deputy Vito Zaccaro, who testified that he was working in the external operations unit at John H. Stroger, Jr., Hospital of Cook County (Stroger Hospital) when he met defendant at the front of the hospital to accompany him to an appointment. Defendant was wearing a Department of Corrections inmate uniform and was restrained with handcuffs and leg shackles. Zaccaro transported defendant to the dermatology clinic on the second floor. Defendant repeatedly asked to use the restroom during the appointment. After the appointment, Zaccaro took defendant to a single-occupancy restroom and allowed him to enter with his hands uncuffed but his legs still shackled. Zaccaro waited in the hallway outside with the restroom door "open about a crack."

         ¶ 11 When defendant came out after about 10 minutes, Officer Zaccaro asked him to put his hands out, but defendant instead "jumped toward the one side with a silver metal weapon, placed it to [Zaccaro's] neck and said 'move or I'll cut you.' " Zaccaro felt defendant's hand going toward his handgun, and he threw up his arms to prevent defendant from taking the gun. Defendant responded by stabbing Zaccaro in the neck. Zaccaro struggled to detain defendant, but he tripped over defendant's shackles, and they both fell to the floor. When defendant got up and began running, Zaccaro hit the "panic button" on his radio and chased defendant through the hallways and down an emergency stairwell, exiting at the front of Stroger Hospital.

         ¶ 12 Zaccaro followed defendant out of the hospital and saw him run onto a shuttle bus nearby. Zaccaro tried to enter the bus, but the door slammed on him and the bus began to travel around the circular driveway before it "just kind of stopped and went into a wall." Defendant ran out of the bus, and hospital police officers tackled him. On cross-examination, Zaccaro acknowledged that defendant never made a verbal demand for Zaccaro's handgun and he also had keys to the handcuffs and leg shackles on his belt.

         ¶ 13 James Rimmer testified that he was the driver of the shuttle bus and was making runs between the Cook County juvenile court parking lot and Stroger Hospital. The shuttle bus was parked near one of the main entrances to the hospital with the doors open when defendant, wearing a jail inmate uniform, ran through the front door. Rimmer testified that defendant "stood over me, left hand, I guess, behind my seat, and right hand in front of my face. I seen an object in his hand, and he ordered me to drive. He said, '*** [D]rive. If you stop, I'm gonna stab you in the neck.' " Rimmer closed the door to the bus and began driving. After driving a short distance, Rimmer opened the door, causing the bus to stop suddenly. When defendant stumbled forward, Rimmer grabbed his arm and tried to hold him until police arrived. As they wrestled, defendant stabbed Rimmer twice in the face and once in the chest with a downward motion. Defendant then broke free, ran through the front door of the bus, and was tackled by police officers. On cross-examination, Rimmer testified that defendant never got behind the wheel of the bus or gave directions on where to drive. Rimmer nonetheless thought he was a hostage during the incident.

         ¶ 14 Sergeant Gregory Hardin of the Cook County hospital police testified that he received a radio call about an escaped prisoner and ran toward the main entrance with two or three other officers. Upon arriving at the entrance, they were directed to the shuttle bus. They ran to the bus as it stopped and observed defendant striking the driver with a downward motion. Sergeant Hardin entered the bus through the rear door and ordered defendant to stop and get down. Defendant turned toward the front door of the bus and was arrested by the other officers.

         ¶ 15 After denying defendant's motion for a directed verdict, the trial court admonished defendant about his right to testify and reminded him that his prior murder conviction could be used to impeach his credibility if he chose to testify. Defendant asked, "How far does that play out?" The court responded that the State could not talk about the facts of that case but would be able to introduce evidence that defendant was convicted of first degree murder and the date of the conviction. The court also advised defendant that if he testified about a necessity defense, claiming he tried to escape because he had been beaten by jail guards, the State would be allowed to rebut that claim of motive with his murder conviction.

         ¶ 16 Defendant decided to testify. He first discussed his prior murder conviction and maintained he did not commit that offense. He stated that prior to his escape attempt he had spent 4½ years in the Cook County jail. Defendant described the conditions in the jail as "terrible" and "appalling" and asserted that he only tried to escape because he was suffering, his health was failing, and he had been beaten by jail guards about one year before his murder trial. Defendant stated he was hospitalized for three days following the attack, recovering from bruising, cuts, and severe injuries to his eye. Defendant testified one of the guards threatened to beat him again. After he was found guilty of murder, defendant knew he had to escape to save himself and others who were also suffering in the jail. Defendant testified that he tried to escape because he felt his life was in danger and he also wanted to alert the authorities to help others suffering in the jail. Defendant realized he was "going to be one of these guys who sits in prison for 30 years, you know, on something that he didn't do."

         ¶ 17 Defendant denied trying to take Officer Zaccaro's handgun, explaining that he was only trying to take the keys to unlock his leg shackles. Defendant testified he jumped on the bus and asked the driver for help. The bus driver agreed and began driving, but when defendant saw the officers approaching the bus he "knew the gig was up" and told the driver to open the door. As defendant turned to exit the bus, the driver attacked him, a "physical altercation" ensued, and "during the process *** [defendant] accidentally hit him with the knife." Defendant then surrendered to the police officers and was arrested.

         ¶ 18 On cross-examination, the State asked if the alleged beating by the guards occurred while defendant was in jail "[o]n the charges, among other things of first degree murder." Defendant agreed and also acknowledged that a jury had found him guilty of that offense. The State further asked whether the jury found defendant personally discharged a firearm that caused the victim's death. Defendant responded, "Oh, yeah. And when they did that, when they did that, sir." The State asked, "Is that what they found?" and defendant replied, "Not that I know of. *** I thought it was something different than that."

         ¶ 19 The prosecutor then asked, "[A]fter being found guilty of first degree murder three days before your escape and with the additional finding that you shot your victim to death, you were looking at a potential sentence of 45 years to the rest of natural life in prison?" After the trial court overruled defendant's objection, he responded that he was found guilty of a crime he did not commit. Defendant acknowledged that he knew the potential sentence but claimed it "didn't mean anything" to him, and he intended to escape only to avoid being beaten again. The State subsequently asked defendant if he was "charged with a felony murder among other things, " and defendant responded that he was "charged with murder." Defendant denied attempting to force the bus driver to drive away. Rather, he asked the driver, and the driver agreed. Defendant stated he never threatened the bus driver with the knife but was only holding it because he had tried to remove his shackles with it.

         ¶ 20 In rebuttal, the trial court granted the State's motion to admit into evidence a certified statement of conviction and disposition indicating that defendant was found guilty of first degree murder on March 19, 2007. In discussing the evidence to give to the jury, the prosecutor subsequently asserted, "I believe we were going to send back all our exhibits except for the grand jury transcript and the certified copy." The trial court stated, "Right. The grand jury transcript doesn't go back, everything else does."

         ¶ 21 The jury found defendant guilty of aggravated vehicular hijacking, unlawful vehicular invasion, attempted armed robbery, and escape. Defendant was sentenced to concurrent extended-term sentences of 50 years for aggravated vehicular hijacking, 30 years for vehicular invasion, 30 years for attempted armed robbery, and 14 years for escape. The trial court ordered those sentences to run consecutively to defendant's sentence for murder.

         ¶ 22 On appeal, defendant maintained, among other things, that his aggravated vehicular hijacking conviction must be reversed because he did not "take" the bus within the meaning of the aggravated vehicular hijacking statute. Defendant argued the statute requires proof that he actually dispossessed the shuttle bus from the driver. Defendant contended that merely forcing the driver to drive the bus was insufficient.

         ¶ 23 The appellate court agreed with defendant, holding that the taking element of aggravated vehicular hijacking is established only when a defendant " ' "cause[s] the victim to part with possession or custody of [the vehicle] against his will." ' " 2015 IL App (1st) 120654, ¶ 58 (quoting People v. Strickland, 154 Ill.2d 489, 526 (1992), quoting People v. Smith, 78 Ill.2d 298, 303 (1980)). While defendant may have deprived the driver of a measure of control over the vehicle, there was no evidence that he took possession of the bus or removed it from the driver's custody. 2015 IL App (1st) 120654, ¶ 59. The appellate court, therefore, concluded that defendant's aggravated vehicular hijacking conviction must be reversed because the State failed to prove the taking element of that offense beyond a reasonable doubt. 2015 IL App (1st) 120654, ¶ 59. The appellate court also held that defendant's sentence for escape must be reduced to a nonextended term of seven years' imprisonment but otherwise affirmed the trial court's judgment. 2015 IL App (1st) 120654, ¶¶ 130, 132.

         ¶ 24 Justice Palmer dissented in part, asserting that a defendant can "take" a vehicle within the meaning of the aggravated vehicular hijacking statute without physically dispossessing the vehicle from the victim. 2015 IL App (1st) 120654, ¶ 156 (Palmer, J., specially concurring in part and dissenting in part). According to the partial dissent, the majority's narrow construction of the statute produced an absurd result because it failed to include the circumstances of this case where defendant obtained control of the vehicle. 2015 IL App (1st) 120654, ¶¶ 156-57 (Palmer, J., specially concurring in part and dissenting in part). The partial dissent would have held the evidence was sufficient to establish that defendant took the vehicle within the meaning of the aggravated vehicular hijacking statute. 2015 IL App (1st) 120654, ¶ 157 (Palmer, J., specially concurring in part and dissenting in part).

         ¶ 25 We allowed the State's petition for leave to appeal (Ill. S.Ct. R. 315 (eff. Jan. 1, 2015)).

         ¶ 26 II. ANALYSIS

         ¶ 27 A. Construction of the Aggravated Vehicular Hijacking Statute

         ¶ 28 On appeal to this court, the State contends that the appellate court construed the aggravated vehicular hijacking statute far too narrowly. The State maintains that the statutory language does not require an offender to remove a vehicle from the driver's possession but may also be satisfied when, as here, the defendant exercises control over the vehicle by use of force. The State contends the appellate court ignored the plain meaning and purpose of the statute. Further, its decision excludes the most dangerous conduct from the statute's scope because the greatest risk of harm occurs when a victim remains in the vehicle with the assailant during the offense. The State contends that defendant's actions fall squarely within the conduct prohibited by the statute when construed properly.

         ¶ 29 Defendant responds that the phrase "takes from" in the vehicular hijacking statute plainly requires physical dispossession of the vehicle from the driver. In Strickland, this court held that robbery of a vehicle occurred only when the defendant removed the vehicle from the victim's actual possession. Strickland, 154 Ill.2d at 526. The legislature subsequently used the language from the robbery statute in enacting the vehicular hijacking statute. Defendant concludes that because the legislature used the language from the robbery statute in creating the vehicular hijacking offense, this court's construction of that language in Strickland controls the interpretation of the vehicular hijacking statute.

         ¶ 30 This issue presents a question of statutory construction subject to de novo review. People v. Grant, 2016 IL 119162, ¶ 20. The fundamental objective of statutory construction is to ascertain and give effect to the legislature's intent. People v. Pearse, 2017 IL 121072, ¶ 41. The most reliable indicator of legislative intent is the language of the statute, given its plain and ordinary meaning. People v. Cherry, 2016 IL 118728, ¶ 13. In discerning legislative intent, we may consider the purpose of the statute, the problems to be remedied, and the consequences of interpreting the statute one way or another. People v. Bradford, 2016 IL 118674, ¶ 15. A reviewing court may also consider the circumstances existing when the statute was enacted, contemporaneous conditions, and the goals sought to be achieved. People v. Johnson, 2017 IL 120310, ¶ 15. We presume that the legislature did not intend absurd, inconvenient, or unjust results. People v. Williams, ...

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