News Tribune

State Supreme Court slams door on La Salle County's drug team (UPDATED)

The Illinois Supreme Court’s ruling is in: Former La Salle County state’s attorney Brian Towne stretched the law too far when he created the SAFE Team, his drug interdiction unit.

In a 22-page ruling released this morning, the state’s top court voted 5-2 to uphold an appellate court ruling that the La Salle County State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement Team was an overreach of law.

Towne launched the SAFE Team in 2011, citing a law that allows state’s attorneys to hire and deputize investigators. The statute in question contained some much-disputed words allowing investigators to “conduct investigations which assist the State’s Attorney in the performance of his duties.”

Two years ago, an appeals court ruled that the SAFE Team exceeded that authority. Today, the Supreme Court agreed.

“Based on Towne’s exhortation to ‘go out and enforce the law,’ the SAFE unit essentially operated as a county police force at the direction of Towne, generating its own cases,” Justice Charles Freeman wrote in the majority opinion. “The Legislature could not have intended such a far-reaching result.”

In a prepared statement released minutes after the ruling, La Salle County state’s attorney Karen Donnelly said this could be bad news for La Salle County now and down the road.

“Even though I predicted and feared this outcome when I was a candidate,” Donnelly said, “I take no personal pleasure in it now, because it leaves us, at best, on an uncertain path as we clean up the mess Mr. Towne left behind.”

Donnelly said her office now would begin closure of the remaining SAFE cases, “with the ultimate goal of dismissal of the charges and refunds of any monies seized by the unit.”

“We will also continue to work with outside counsel who represents the La Salle County Board and the citizens of La Salle County to protect and preserve the County’s interests in the federal litigation which has been recently filed naming La Salle County and Brian Towne as defendants.”

The court’s opinion was released at 9 a.m. — less than an hour before the NewsTribune’s deadline — and today’s story was prepared without the aid of a reviewing attorney, who would need hours of study to render a reliable legal opinion.

A more comprehensive analysis of the ruling will be published Friday, by which time several attorneys attached to the case will have had a chance to study the ruling closely and render their professional opinions on what it means for La Salle County and its taxpayers.

This much is clear: The justices used strong language in expressing their concerns about a start-up drug unit and the legal reasoning behind putting it in operation.

“(Nowhere) does (the statute) prescribe that a state’s attorney patrol the highways, engage in law enforcement and conduct drug interdiction,” Freeman wrote bluntly.

He added later, “Our dissenting colleagues contend that the state’s attorney’s duty to investigate suspected illegal activity is boundless and unrestricted. We disagree.”

He went on to write that a prosecutor ordinarily relies on police and other agencies for investigation of criminal acts, and that built into this is a deference to other agencies.

And while Freeman acknowledged a prosecutor could step in and undertake an investigation when another police agency failed to properly do so, Towne and company never asserted the SAFE Team was needed because another agency was improperly conducting drug investigations.

Joining Freeman in the ruling were Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Robert Thomas, Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis.

Justice Rita Garman wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by La Salle-born Justice Thomas Kilbride, who oversees a judicial region that includes La Salle County.

Garman wrote that a prosecutor has more leeway to investigate crimes than the justices in the majority opinion were willing to acknowledge.

“There is no support for (their) restrictive interpretation of the state’s attorney’s duties in our common law or the counties code,” Garman wrote.

Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.