La Salle County area attorneys join police in opposing House Bill 163

Lawyers don’t oppose justice reform, just the current package

No-shows. Upswings in crime. Undue burdens on police. No restitution for victims.

Those were a few of the concerns voiced Tuesday as local attorneys digested the potential impact of House Bill 163 and its companion legislation.

Local police chiefs and sheriffs already have studied the criminal justice proposals and see trouble ahead for police officers, cities and taxpayers. They aren’t alone. Some lawyers in the La Salle and neighboring counties are just as worried.

“There are items in this bill that, in theory, may be good ideas; however, in reality, they are virtually impossible to accomplish.”

—  La Salle County State's Attorney Todd Martin

La Salle County State’s Attorney Todd Martin said he looked at the proposals and an advisory issued by the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association. He said he agrees with the ISAA ramming the current proposals through a lame duck session in Springfield will create many more problems than they will solve.

“Although I agree there needs to be some level of reform pertaining to criminal law, this bill is just overly broad and too far reaching,” Martin said. “There are items in this bill that, in theory, may be good ideas; however, in reality, they are virtually impossible to accomplish.”

One of the problems he foresees is funding. The legislation calls for placing body cameras on every officer, and this would be a costly unfunded mandate for cities and counties. Data storage alone is expensive, and complying with the Freedom of Information Act would require new hires to redact personal identifying information from footage before it can be released to the public.

“Smaller departments do not have the requisite funds to make these purchases without levying higher amounts of tax dollars,” Martin said.

Costs, however, are just one of the red flags that ISAA president Justin Hood raised in a memo to prosecutors. Among the concerns he outlined were:

• Expanded Miranda warnings: Under HB 163, the Miranda warnings would be expanded to anyone held in custody even after authorities have shown probable cause.

If enacted, Hood warned, this “will essentially preclude law enforcement from questioning a suspect once in custody.”

• Eliminate felony murder: If a robber walks into a bank and an anxious bystander dies of a heart attack, the robber is guilty of felony murder. The law is clear: Any death resulting from a violent offense, intended or not, is murder. HB 163 would change that.

Former La Salle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne handled several felony murder cases, most notably the case where a rural Earlville man shot and killed an intruder. Towne charged and convicted a second intruder, not the gun-wielding homeowner, with felony murder because he shouldered responsibility for his cohort’s life.

“Felony murder exists because of the sheer chaos that frequently occurs when individuals commit violent felonies,” said Towne, who opposes striking felony murder from the books. “The loss of a life is the steepest price to be paid in any situation and those who choose to commit those felonies, even if they don’t anticipate a death, should still be held accountable.”

• More no-shows: The Bail Reform Act of 2017 set off what Hood termed “a substantial increase in defendants deciding to ignore the courts and simply not appear.”

Two members of the defense bar said they also harbor some concerns with eliminating cash bonds for lesser offenses.

La Salle County public defender Tim Cappellini said the courts already assess bonds on a case-by-case basis, and he doesn’t see the need for a blanket no-bond policy. There’s also a downside to simply letting out suspects: Crimes committed while out on bond are punishable by back-to-back sentences.

“What I’ve seen is guys will go out, commit another crime and compound their situation,” Cappellini said. He added later, “There’s a need to protect the public, too.”

Ryan Hamer, an assistant public defender, said there’s some merit to eliminating bonds in some cases but agreed there are suspects, such as drug offenders, who are better off in jail than on the streets.

“If somebody is out there in the throes of addiction and making terrible decisions, sometimes you need a period of forced sobriety.”

Hamer also said a cash bond sometimes facilitates plea bargaining. In cases of theft or criminal damage to property, a defendant who uses his bond to make restitution will have an easier time avoiding prison than one who cannot make his victim whole.

“It’s easier to avoid additional incarceration when you’ve got $10,000 posted so the fees are paid and the restitution is taken care of,” Hamer said.

Tom Collins

Tom Collins covers criminal justice in La Salle County.