Joliet attorney raises constitutional challenge to Illinois civil forfeiture

Joliet attorney Frank Andreano makes notes on a document in his office on Thursday, May 16, 2024.

A Joliet attorney seeks to have an Illinois civil forfeiture law declared unconstitutional under claims that Will County prosecutors are profiting from seized property belonging to people who’ve committed no crimes.

The case that led attorney Frank Andreano to request a judge to declare civil asset state forfeiture law unconstitutional involves Almeda Cain, 84, of Richton Park, who owns a 2014 Mazda SUV.

On March 24, Cain allowed her daughter to use her Mazda SUV to take a trip to the pharmacy to pick up her medication, according to a court filing Monday, May 13, from Andreano to declare Illinois forfeiture unconstitutional.

Unknown to Cain, her daughter’s driving privileges were revoked because of a past conviction for driving under the influence, Andreano said.

During her daughter’s trip, New Lenox police officers initiated a traffic stop because of an expired registration sticker and seized the vehicle after discovering that Cain’s daughter had a revoked driver’s license, according to Andreano’s court filing.

On April 29, prosecutors with Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow’s office filed a civil complaint for forfeiture of Cain’s vehicle because her daughter used it “in connection with” the misdemeanor offense of driving with a revoked license.

No trial has been set for the traffic case against Cain’s daughter.

“They’re taking property away from people who’ve committed no crime,” said Andreano, who said he plans to take Cain’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Andreano’s court filing claims that the Illinois civil asset forfeiture law is unconstitutional because the proceeds from those cases are directly paid to police departments and state’s attorney’s offices rather than to the general fund of Illinois.

This has resulted in an “impermissible bounty system, which taints and improperly influences the discretionary actions of police and prosecutors,” Andreano said in his court filing.

He contends that is a violation of the due process clause of the U.S. and Illinois constitutions.

Andreano said he believes the law and money generated in forfeiture cases has effectively turned Will County prosecutors into “high-volume debt-collection attorneys concerned only with the amount of funds collected and property seized.”

Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow attends the Will County Law Enforcement Memorial ceremony on Thursday, May 9, 2024 in downtown Joliet.

Andreano’s court filing alleged that police departments and state’s attorney’s offices receive 100% of the money from forfeiture cases – 65% to police departments, 12.5% to state’s attorney’s offices and 12.5% to appellate state’s attorney’s offices, while 10% is retained by Illinois State Police for “expenses related to the administration and sale of seized and forfeited property,” he said.

“This self-funding system results in large sums of money being realized directly by the police and prosecutors outside of any normal appropriation process,” according to Andreano’s filing.

Andreano argued that the funds gained through forfeiture cases has turned Glasgow’s office into a “charitable foundation” where civic and nonprofit organizations can apply for and receive large donations from his office. Among those groups are the Greater Joliet Area YMCA, Joliet Junior College and the Spanish Community Center, he said.

The donations from Glasgow’s office “result in favorable press releases and media coverage” for Glasgow, who is an elected official, Andreano alleged in the filing.

Andreano alleged that the forfeiture law has become a “vehicle for prosecutors and law enforcement to have an actual slush fund to fund public self-promotion, youth reading, K9 units and other items beyond those specifically appropriated.”

In a statement, Glasgow spokeswoman Carole Cheney said Andreano’s court filing “challenges the constitutionality of settled, well-established forfeiture laws.”

Cheney said the state’s attorney’s office has used forfeiture money in compliance with these laws for law enforcement and public education “in the prevention and detection of drug and alcohol abuse” through donations to numerous nonprofit organizations and law enforcement agencies.

“Sadly, the complaint castigates the state’s attorney’s office for using forfeiture funds to support our community and help prevent future crime rather than retain forfeiture proceeds in a bank account and simply allow these community and crime prevention needs to remain unmet,” Cheney said.

Tim Curry, policy and research director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center in Washington, D.C., said if police departments and state’s attorney’s offices in Will County are profiting from forfeiture cases, that would pose a “constitutional problem” and a “severe conflict.”

Forfeiture law has long been controversial in Illinois and in the U.S.

Curry said people in forfeiture cases have no right to an attorney, and the evidence standard is not as high as the one used in criminal court. Nationally, the people who are subject to forfeiture actions tend to have low incomes and come from “communities of color,” he said.

“It happens to people without a lot of power, and it often happens without much checks on the local court system,” Curry said of forfeiture cases.

The Illinois American Civil Liberties Union and the Illinois Policy Institute recommended reforms in a 2016 report, and reform legislation was signed into law in 2017.

Ben Ruddell, an Illinois ACLU criminal justice policy director, said he’s heard that Will County is among the “most aggressive practitioners” of civil asset forfeitures.

“I can say we’re hopeful litigation – whether it’s this litigation or other litigation – can bring to light the problems with this system,” Ruddell said.