SAFE-T Act test case: Brito fails to win release in La Salle County

Judge: Ottawa gun suspect stays jailed

Anthony Brito is escorted into the courtroom on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, at the La Salle County Governmental Complex in Ottawa.

Ottawa police raced downtown, spotted bullet holes in Larry Burns’ car and found shell casings in the street. Burns identified the man accused of the shooting, Anthony Brito, who was soon arrested and held on $5 million bond.

That was two weeks ago. Much has changed since then. Brito no longer is subject to $5 million bond, but he isn’t going anywhere, either. A judge decided Brito will stay in La Salle County Jail.

Friday, 29-year-old Brito appeared in La Salle County Circuit Court not for a bond hearing – those days are over – but for a detention hearing under the newly-applied SAFE-T Act. As of Monday, Illinois is a cash-free bail state and prosecutors now need to spell out a case for why a particular suspect needs to stay in custody.

Brito found himself in one of many test cases for La Salle County on the scope and the limits of the newly-applied law.

Brito’s attorney, Public Defender Ryan Hamer, said Friday in open court that several of Brito’s charges (he has four pending felonies) fall under the SAFE-T Act’s list of qualifying offenses for which a subject can be detained.

Hamer said the SAFE-T Act is clear: All persons shall be presumed eligible for pre-trial release.

“Like it or not,” Hamer said, “this is the state of the law in Illinois.”

Hamer said the emerging case against Brito isn’t as ironclad as the state has portrayed. There has been no video-recorded evidence or physical evidence against Brito and his supposed motive was questionable at best.

“There is a very high burden the state must meet,” Hamer said, “and I don’t believe they did so.”

Prosecutor Greg Sticka said that not only was Burns’ car struck with gunfire but there was a passenger in the car and there were nearby pedestrians and motorists – any of whom could have been injured. Brito, he said, is a convicted felon who had no business having a 9 mm pistol found in his home.

As for granting Brito pre-trial release, Sticka said, Brito was and still is awaiting sentencing for a drug deal when the shooting occurred.

“That didn’t stop him from allegedly committing this offense,” Sticka said, “It didn’t stop him from getting a gun. It didn’t stop him from firing the gun.”

Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. agreed. Brito, who slouched in his chair and shook his head during the proceedings, will not go free. However, Hamer will have a chance to revisit Brito’s detention at future hearings.

“It’s a whole new world,” Sticka said after the proceedings were concluded.

Cash-free bail was one of the sweeping provisions enacted when lawmakers passed the Safety, Accountability, Fairness and Equity-Today Act in a session in January 2021. Police and prosecutors expressed outrage but the vast majority of changes withstood appeal.

The effects of the SAFE-T Act in La Salle County

The cash-free provisions took effect on Monday – too soon for authorities to gauge the effects to come.

La Salle County Jail Superintendent Jason Edgcomb said officials saw no mass release of prisoners. In fact, four new transfers arrived this week from another county’s over-crowded jail, and Edgcomb estimates the county is weeks away from seeing any significant shift in the daily census.

Back in the courthouse, a few cases are being pushed back while attorneys sort out who goes free and who stays in custody.

On Thursday, several defendants in custody waived their speedy-trial rights and asked for November detention hearings. These include an aggravated battery suspect accused of injuring a small child, but who nonetheless is eligible for probation. Will such bubble-case suspects go free? Time will tell.

One concern is not whether the law is unclear – one lawyer called the list of qualified offenses “very extensive” – but rather that cases vary wildly by facts and circumstances. Court officials do not have a one-size-fits-all approach to the conditions of release because no two cases are the same.

Morris defense attorney Matthew Mueller said one trend has become clear: low-level drug possession suspects are going free.

“And those are the people who should be let out,” Mueller said.

Defense attorneys said their phones are blowing up with questions from defendants who’ve heard of no-cash bail and want to know if it applies to them. Lawyers themselves are trying to figure that out.

“We’re all learning a whole new procedure,” said Peru defense attorney Douglas Olivero.

“All my clients in jail are calling me and asking if I can get them out,” said Mendota defense attorney David Kaleel. “My answer is, ‘I’m going to try.’”

Chief Judge H. Chris Ryan Jr. speaks during a pre-trial in the Anthony Brito case on Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, at the La Salle County Governmental Complex in Ottawa.