The Illinois Supreme Court issued three opinions on Thursday, April 18. The ISBA’s panel of leading appellate and civil attorneys reviewed the opinions and provided summaries. In People v. Buffer, the court upheld an appellate court’s decision to vacate a defendant’s 50-year prison sentence imposed for a crime he committed when he was 16 years old and remanded the case for resentencing. In People v. Kimble, the court denied a man’s motion to bar his reprosecution on double jeopardy grounds where the trial judge declared a mistrial after the jury was deadlocked. Fillmore v. Taylor addresses whether an inmate can seek relief against the Department of Corrections pursuant to mandamus or a common-law writ of certiorari based on allegations that the Department failed to follow relevant regulations.

People v. Buffer

By Jay Wiegman, Office of the State Appellate Defender

The law governing life sentences for juvenile offenders has evolved dramatically in the last 15 years. Starting in 2005, the United States Supreme Court has held that the Eighth Amendment prohibits capital sentences for juveniles who commit murder (Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), mandatory life sentences for juveniles who commit non-homicide offenses (Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), and mandatory life sentences for juveniles who commit murder (Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460 (2012). The Illinois Supreme Court has applied Miller to mandatory de facto life sentences (People v. Reyes, 2016 IL 119271), as well as to discretionary sentences of life without parole for juvenile defendants (People v. Holman, 2017 IL 120655). Additionally, Illinois recently enacted a new sentencing scheme for defendants under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of their offense; the legislation requires the sentencing court to consider several additional factors reflective of the characteristics of youth before any sentence is imposed. 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105 (2016). This line of cases and Illinois law requires that, in order to challenge the constitutionality of a sentence imposed on a juvenile, a defendant must show that: 1) he was subjected to a life sentence, whether it be mandatory or discretionary, natural or de facto, and; 2) the sentencing court failed to consider youth and its attendant characteristics in imposing the sentence.

Against this backdrop, the Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, considered when a juvenile defendant’s prison term is long enough to be considered a de facto life sentence without parole. Writing for the majority, Justice Neville observed that courts have struggled to formulate an exact calculation of a de facto life sentence imposed on a juvenile that violates the Eighth Amendment pursuant to Miller and its progeny. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 32. Some courts have held that Miller is triggered whenever a court imposes a sentence that results in a geriatric release. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 33. These courts generally rely on statistics and actuarial tables to determine a prisoner’s life expectancy.

The majority, however, rejected that line of thinking and instead looked to the legislature’s recently enacted juvenile sentencing statutes to determine what the legislature considers to be society’s current benchmark for decency. The majority noted that subsection (c) of the new juvenile sentencing statute set a floor for juvenile offenders who commit certain enumerated, and more egregious crimes, and adopted that benchmark. As a result, the majority drew the line at 40 years. Concluding that a prison sentence of up to 40 years imposed on a juvenile offender provides an opportunity to obtain release, the majority determined that a sentence of 40 years or less does not constitute a de facto life sentence in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 41. The supreme court therefore affirmed the appellate court (which had vacated the circuit court’s summary dismissal of the defendant’s post-conviction petition, though based on a different rationale), and remanded the matter to the circuit court for a new sentencing hearing as provided by 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-105).

In a special concurrence, Justice Burked agreed that it was appropriate for the Court to decide what mandatory term-of-years sentence without the possibility of parole constitutes a de facto life sentence, but rejected the majority’s approach. Justice Burke did not consider the question to involve a penological judgment based on contemporary values, which would be a matter for the Legislature. Instead, the concurring justice stated the only question before the Court is: what constitutes a life sentence? Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 59 (Burke, J., specially concurring). To Justice Burke’s way of thinking, the question is a calculation as to when the defendant’s age at the earliest projected time of release exceeds an incarcerated minor’s average life expectancy. Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 65 (Burke, J., specially concurring). Ultimately, Justice Burke determined that “any sentence imposed on a minor that would result in the minor’s earliest release when he or she is 55 years old or more would be a de facto life sentence.” Buffer, 2019 IL 122327, ¶ 65  (Burke, J., specially concurring). Like the majority, the concurring justice would affirm the appellate court’s judgment and remand for resentencing.

People v. Kimble

By Kerry J. Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender

Defendant David Kimble was charged in 2014 in McHenry County with four counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. The case proceeded to a jury trial, and after two days of testimony and a morning of closing arguments, the jury deliberated for approximately five hours during which it twice declared itself deadlocked. The first of those declarations was addressed by the court, ex parte. After the second, the foreman informed the court and the parties that further deliberations would not help the jury reach a verdict. Although both the state and defense suggested the Priminstruction or that the jurors be brought back the next day for further deliberations, the court refused. The judge excused the jury and declared a mistrial.

After the court continued the matter to reset it for trial, Kimble sought to bar further prosecution on double jeopardy grounds. The trial court denied Kimble’s motion, and he appealed. The Second District Appellate Court sided with Kimble, concluding that there was no manifest necessity for the mistrial and thus, double jeopardy barred retrial.

The Illinois Supreme Court disagreed, noting the longstanding principle that double jeopardy concerns do not bar reprosecution after a jury is discharged because it cannot reach a verdict where either: (1) defendant consents to the mistrial, or (2) there is a manifest necessity for it. A court’s decision to declare a mistrial due to jury deadlock is given deference, and there was no error in that decision here. The jury twice told the court that it was unable to reach a verdict, and the foreman said more time would not help. The jury’s statement that it is deadlocked is the most important factor in determining whether the court erred in declaring a mistrial. And, there is no requirement that a court give the Prim instruction before deciding that a mistrial is justified by manifest necessity. The majority also concluded that while the judge should not have had ex parte communication with the jury when it first declared itself at an impasse, his response to “continue deliberating” was neither improper nor prejudicial.

Justice Burke authored a dissent, concluding that the ex parte communication by the court to the jury amounted to judicial indiscretion, prompted the mistrial, and deprived Kimble of his fundamental rights. In a separate dissent, Justice Neville, joined by Justice Burke, expressed the opinion that the judge’s ex partecommunication with the deliberating jury was a structural error which deprived Kimble of his fundamental rights to a fair trial and to be present at all critical stages. He would have found the mistrial to be a matter of judicial indiscretion and would have barred reprosecution.

Fillmore v. Taylor

By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde Law Offices LLP

This case raises the issue of whether an inmate in the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections (Department), who is subject to discipline, can seek relief against the Department pursuant to mandamus or a common-law writ of certiorari based on allegations that the Department failed to follow Department regulations codified in the Illinois Administrative Code.

Endorsing the approach undertaken by the circuit court (as opposed to the appellate court), the supreme court followed the analysis set forth in Ashley v. Snyder, 316 Ill. Appl. 3d  1252 (2000), which determined whether the Department regulations at issue created judicially enforceable rights. Tracing the shifting focus of liberty interests of prisoners protected by the due process clause, as discussed in Sandin v. Conner, 515 U.S. 472 (1995), and reiterated in Wilkinson v. Austin, 545 U.S. 209 (2005), the court held that it is not the violation of the regulation itself that gives right to a cause of action but, rather, the interest affected by the discipline imposed. Applying this test, the court found that the plaintiff’s complaint stated a claim for common-law writ of certiorari based on one alleged due process violation, the revocation of his good conduct credits, because that penalty affected the nature or duration of his confinement. The remedy for the other alleged violations of Department regulations, according to the court, would be through the grievance procedures.

The supreme court then examined the record to determine whether the disciplinary hearing at which the plaintiff lost his good conduct credits satisfied his due process rights, looking at whether the plaintiff received:  (1) advance written notice of the charges; (2) opportunity to call witnesses and present documentary evidence, when consistent with institutional safety and correctional goals; and (3) a written statement by the fact finder of the evidence relied upon and the reasons for the disciplinary action. Taking the allegations of the plaintiff as true for purposes of a section 2-615 motion to dismiss, and based on allegations that the plaintiff was denied witnesses, the opportunity to review evidence, and impartial decision makers, the court reversed the circuit court order dismissing that claim and remanded the matter for further proceedings.

Justice Burke, in a special concurrence joined by Justice Neville, criticized the court’s analysis of when certiorari review is warranted, noting that Sandin was not a certiorari case. According to the concurrence, the first step in the inquiry as to whether certiorari review is warranted is whether the plaintiff has made a showing of substantial injury or injustice. Sandin is relevant on that point because the substantial injury test can be shown by a prisoner who has received a punishment that “‘imposes atypical and significant hardship on the inmate in relation to the ordinary incidents of prison life.’” The concurrence expressed the same concerns for limiting the scope of the writ of mandamus, noting that it was premature at this point to determine whether one should issue.