The Illinois Supreme Court handed down four opinions on Thursday, March 19. In People v. McLaurin, the court reinstated a man’s conviction of being an armed habitual criminal. In People v. Hill, the court declined to overrule its prior decision in People v. Stout, which holds that the odor of burnt cannabis, alone, is enough to provide probable cause to search a vehicle. In People v. Jackson, the court upheld a murder conviction despite the defendant’s claims of error. In Whitaker v. Wedbush Securities, Inc., the court construed article 4A of the Illinois Uniform Commercial Code to determine whether the term “bank” applied to the defendant futures commission merchant.

People v. McLaurin

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

A police officer observed Jasper McLaurin exit a building carrying a silver handgun and enter the rear passenger compartment of a van. She followed the van and called for backup. A traffic stop was initiated, but a patdown of McLaurin did not reveal a gun. Another officer then looked underneath the stopped van and located a loaded, chrome-colored handgun on the ground. The police did not see anyone discard the gun under the vehicle, and it was not tested for prints. The gun was not introduced at trial.

A stipulation established that McLaurin had two prior felony convictions: a 2011 conviction for unlawful use of weapon by a felon, and a 2006 conviction for aggravated battery with a firearm.

On this evidence, McLaurin was convicted of armed habitual criminal, an offense which requires proof that the individual possessed a firearm and had at least two prior convictions of certain enumerated offenses. The appellate court reversed, finding the evidence insufficient to establish that McLaurin possessed a firearm as defined by statute.

The Illinois Supreme Court disagreed and reinstated McLaurin’s conviction. The firearm definition at issue comes from the FOID Card Act, which defines a firearm as “any device, by whatever name known, which is designed to expel a projectile or projectiles by the action of an explosion, expansion of gas, or escape of gas.” Specifically excluded are BB guns, paint guns, and similar devices.

The Court clarified that an eyewitness’s testimony that he or she observed an individual with a firearm can be sufficient to satisfy this statutory definition, consistent with the Court’s prior decisions in People v. Washington, 2012 IL 107993, and People v. Wright, 2017 IL 119561. The “firearm” definition at issue for armed habitual criminal is the same one that was at issue for armed robbery with a firearm in Wright.

Here, the police officer eyewitness’s testimony that she observed McLaurin holding a “silver handgun” was sufficient. The officer, who was familiar with firearms, was approximately 50 feet from McLaurin, it was daytime, and nothing obstructed her view. And, the officer who recovered the handgun from under the van testified that it was fully loaded and matched the description of the firearm observed by the first officer. While the evidence was not overwhelming, and the State took a risk by not introducing the gun, the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the prosecution, was sufficient to establish that a rational trier of fact could have found that McLaurin possessed a firearm.

Given the Court’s decision today, it remains that while the FOID Card Act contains a technical definition of “firearm,” proof of the use or possession of a firearm does not require technical evidence or formal testing. It is enough for an eyewitness, with adequate experience and opportunity to observe, to testify that the item in question was a firearm.

People v. Hill

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

Today, the Illinois Supreme Court declined to overrule its prior decision in People v. Stout, 106 Ill. 2d 77 (1985), which holds that the odor of burnt cannabis, alone, is enough to provide probable cause to search a vehicle. Charles Hill’s argument for overruling was premised on the enactment of the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Pilot Program Act and the decriminalization of small amounts of cannabis. (Legalization of cannabis for adult use had not yet taken effect at the time of Hill’s arrest here, so was not at issue.)

Indeed, the Court did not even reach the “odor-alone” issue here, finding instead that the totality of the circumstances supported the warrantless search of Hill’s vehicle. Specifically, the Court pointed to Hill’s delay in pulling over, and the officer’s observation of a cannabis “bud” in plain sight on Hill’s back seat, coupled with the strong odor of cannabis. Taken together, these facts provided probable cause to search Hill’s vehicle, which ultimately resulted in the discovery of heroin.

In reaching this conclusion, the Court acknowledged that the Medical Cannabis Act “somewhat altered the status of cannabis as contraband” because it authorizes certain individuals to possess cannabis in accordance with the Act. Here, however, the strong odor of cannabis and the visible cannabis bud indicated that cannabis was in the car and likely not properly contained in accordance with the Act’s requirement that it be in a “sealed, tamper-evident medical cannabis container.”

The Court also rejected Hill’s argument that small amounts of cannabis were no longer contraband because possession of less than 10 grams had been reduced to a civil law violation punishable only by a fine under decriminalization. The Court clarified that possession of cannabis remained illegal under decriminalization. Contraband encompasses all items that are unlawful to possess, regardless of penalty. Because the totality of the circumstances supported a finding of probable cause to believe there was contraband, here cannabis, in Hill’s vehicle, the warrantless search was proper.

While Hill involved a traditional totality-of-the-circumstances analysis, the Court’s statement that the Medical Cannabis Act altered the status of cannabis as contraband will almost certainly provide fodder for future challenges – both under the Medical Cannabis Act and, now, adult-use legalization.

People v. Jackson

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

Aaron Jackson was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2010 death of John Thornton, the mayor of Washington Park, Illinois. Thornton was shot at close range in his vehicle early one morning. Two eyewitnesses placed Jackson at the scene, a fingerprint on the outside of Thornton’s car was matched to Jackson, and Jackson had gunshot residue on his clothing and one hand.

Jackson raised numerous issues on appeal, including whether he was proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, whether prosecutorial misconduct in closing argument deprived him of a fair trial, and whether errors in the post-trial proceedings on his claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel (Krankel proceedings) required reversal and remand for further proceedings.

The Supreme Court addressed each of these issues in turn. As to reasonable doubt, Jackson cited to numerous problems with eyewitness credibility, as well as weaknesses in the physical evidence. The Court addressed each, in turn, and concluded that under the deferential standard of review applicable to reasonable doubt claims – whether, considering the evidence in the light most favorable to the prosecution, any rational trier of fact could have found the essential elements of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt – the evidence was not so improbable, unsatisfactory, or unreasonable as to warrant reversal of defendant’s conviction.

In support of his claim of prosecutorial misconduct, Jackson cited two statements made by the prosecutor in closing argument. First, the prosecutor told jurors that blood spots on Jackson’s jeans were a “match” to Thornton, but the actual evidence was only that Thornton could not be excluded as a contributor to the partial profile obtained from the blood on Jackson’s jeans. Second, the prosecutor told jurors that Jackson’s fingerprint on Thornton’s car was a “fresh print,” but the fingerprint expert had testified that there was no way to determine the age of the print. The Supreme Court agreed that both of these arguments were error, but found that they were isolated remarks and were, therefore, harmless.

Finally, the Court addressed Jackson’s claims of error in the Krankel proceedings. The Court agreed with Jackson that the trial court erred in allowing the state to participate in the Krankel hearing in direct conflict with its prior decision in People v. Jolly, 2014 IL 117142. While Jackson argued that such error can never be harmless and therefore required reversal, the Supreme Court disagreed, noting that in Jolly, it had specifically rebuffed the state’s claim that it was creating a new category of structural error when it reversed and remanded. In the instant opinion, the Court made clear that the state’s adversarial participation at a Krankel hearing can be harmless error and therefore does not always require automatic reversal.

The Court then went on to conclude that the error here was harmless. While the state’s participation was improper, the Krankel hearing still produced a “neutral and objective” record upon which the reviewing court could assess defendant’s pro se ineffectiveness claim. And, here, that claim lacked merit.

The reasonable doubt and prosecutorial misconduct analyses in this opinion were straightforward and based on well-established law. This opinion is most notable for the further clarification it provides with regard to Krankel proceedings. While the Court did not excuse the state’s improper adversarial participation at the Krankel hearing, it did clarify that such participation does not always require reversal.

Whitaker v. Wedbush Securities, Inc.

By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde & O’Meara LLP

In this case, the Illinois Supreme Court construed article 4A of the Illinois Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) (810 ILCS 5/4A-101 et seq. (West 2014)), to determine whether the term “bank” applied to the defendant futures commission merchant.

Plaintiffs sought refunds under article 4A of the UCC for amounts lost due to unauthorized funds transfers involving their commodity futures trading accounts with the defendant. In December 2014, the defendant received several e-mail requests from a third-party who had hacked the email account of plaintiff Whitaker, requesting the wire transfer of funds from his trading accounts to a bank in Poland. The hacker intercepted all communications from the defendant and ultimately obtained $374,960. Whitaker sued the defendant to recover the funds.

At the conclusion of a bench trial, the circuit court entered judgment against plaintiffs, finding that the defendant did not fall within the UCC’s definition of a “bank” (810 ILCS 5/4A-105(a)(2) (West 2014)). The appellate court affirmed, finding there was no evidence showing that the defendant provided its customers with checking account privileges, a key factor in determining whether an entity is a bank. 2019 IL App (1st) 181455-U, ¶¶ 68-71.

In a unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Kilbride, in which Justices Neville and Burke took no part, the Court reversed the circuit and appellate courts, holding that the defendant was a bank for purposes of Article 4A. In doing so, it first applied rules of statutory construction, including examining the purpose of Article 4A, which required a broad interpretation of the term “bank,” and examining Article 4A’s plain language. The Court noted that there was no provision in Article 4A that required checking services in order to meet the definition of a bank and that it could not add such a provision when it was not expressed by the legislature. Next, the Court looked to the official comments to section 4A-105 of the UCC, including Comment 1, which stated that the term “bank” “includes some institutions that are not commercial banks” and that “[t]he definition reflects the fact that many financial institutions now perform functions previously restricted to commercial banks, including acting on behalf of customers in funds transfers.” 810 ILCS Ann. 5/4A-105, UCC Comment 1, at 541 (Smith-Hurd 2014). Comment 2 showed that Article 4A was intended to govern “[w]holesale wire transfers” typically involving “very large amounts of money.” 810 ILCS 5/4A-104, UCC Comment 2, at 537 (Smith-Hurd 2014).

Lastly, the Court looked to the undisputed evidence, which showed that the defendant referred to itself as a financial institution that offered a variety of services, including brokerage and trading services. The evidence also showed that the defendant regularly assisted its customers in processing funds transfers, and in this case alone, processed four transactions that totaled $374,960. For all of these reasons, the Court found that the defendant financial institution was a “bank” for purposes of Article 4A of the UCC.

The Court declined plaintiffs’ request to decide whether the defendant was required to refund the lost amounts under article 4A and what amounts, instead, remanding the matter to the circuit court to determine the remaining issues, such as, whether the parties implemented a commercially reasonable security procedure and whether defendant processed the payment orders in good faith. See 810 ILCS 5/4A-202 (West 2014).