The Illinois Supreme Court handed down two opinions on Thursday, April 2. In People v. Brown, the Supreme Court found that a circuit court unnecessarily reached a constitutional issue in its determination that requiring someone to have a FOID card for an in-home weapon is unconstitutional. In Crim v. Dietrich, the Court addressed post-trial motions and remanded for a new trial de novo on only the issue raised in the post-trial motion.

People v. Brown

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

In 2017, Vivian Brown’s estranged husband called the sheriff’s department and reported that she was shooting a gun insider her rural home. When officers arrived, they discovered a rifle in Brown’s bedroom but no evidence of any gun having been fired inside the home. Subsequently, Brown was charged with violating the FOID Card Act in that she possessed a firearm without a valid FOID card.

The circuit court dismissed the charge, finding that 430 ILCS 65/2(a)(1) was unconstitutional as applied to Brown. Specifically, the court found that requiring Brown to complete a form, provide a photo ID, and pay $10 to obtain a FOID card before she could exercise her constitutional right to self-defense in her home violated the second amendment.

In denying a state request to reconsider that decision, the court elaborated that compliance with the FOID Card Act in a person’s own home is impossible in light of the doctrine of constructive possession. An individual with knowledge of the presence of a firearm in her home and the ability to exercise immediate and exclusive control over the area where the weapon is located is in constructive possession of the firearm, even if the weapon was not in her actual possession and possibly even if the weapon actually belongs to another resident of the home. Under the FOID Card Act, such person is required to be in actual possession of a FOID card on their person whenever they are in actual or constructive possession of a firearm. Even an individual with a valid FOID card can’t have it on them all day, every day. The court concluded that even if the FOID Card Act was constitutional, the legislature did not intend it to apply in the home. Accordingly, the court dismissed the charge against defendant.

The state appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court given the finding that the applicable provision of the FOID Card Act was unconstitutional. Whether the circuit court’s decision in that regard was correct, however, will have to wait for another day. The Illinois Supreme Court found that the circuit court unnecessarily reached the constitutional issue because the case could be, and was, decided on a non-constitutional basis. Specifically, the circuit court’s finding that the legislature had not intended the FOID Card Act to apply in the home was a matter of statutory interpretation.

In Trent v. Winningham, 172 Ill. 2d 420 (1996), the Court held that when a circuit court provides an alternative, non-constitutional basis for relief, direct appeal cannot lie in the Illinois Supreme Court. In that circumstance, the appropriate course of action is for the Supreme Court to vacate and remand the matter with directions for the circuit court to enter a new order excluding the finding of unconstitutionality. That is precisely what the Court did here. The Court did not offer any opinion on the merits of the circuit court’s statutory interpretation, noting that the state can seek review of that determination through the normal appellate process.

Justice Karmeier authored a dissent, joined by Justice Theis, noting that the majority had resolved the case on an issue that nobody had raised. The dissent noted that the circuit court had complied with the detailed requirements under Rule 18 when a statute is found unconstitutional, including the requirement that the court determine that the finding of unconstitutionality is necessary to the decision and that the decision cannot rest on an alternative ground. The dissent concluded that the circuit court’s decision was wholly grounded in constitutional concerns and review on the merits should have proceeded.

Crim v. Dietrich

By Michael T. Reagan, Law Offices of Michael T. Reagan

Crim v. Dietrich instructs that it is inordinately dangerous to commence an appeal following a jury verdict without first filing a post-trial motion, with forfeiture being the risk. The case also offers a good overview of the requirements of a proper Supreme Court Rule 308 certified question. Justice Karmeier wrote for himself and three other members of the court. Chief Justice Anne M. Burke specially concurred, Justice Kilbride dissented, with opinion, and Justice Michael J. Burke did not participate.

In the medical malpractice trial, the circuit court granted a partial directed verdict in favor of defendant on the informed consent count. The case went to verdict on the remaining count alleging professional negligence, with the jury returning a verdict in favor of defendant. Plaintiffs appealed, but without filing a post-trial motion. In that appeal, the first of two in this case, the appellate court’s analysis was limited to the directed verdict on informed consent. The court reversed, and issued its mandate, which stated “The order on appeal from the circuit court be reversed and the cause be remanded…for such other proceedings as required by order of this court.” On that remand, the parties disagreed on what issues and facts could be retried. Defendant sought to limit the retrial to the informed consent claim, and to not include the professional negligence claim. Defendant argued that plaintiffs had forfeited their right to a new trial on the latter claim because a post-trial motion had not been filed as required by 735 ILCS 5/2-1202. Plaintiffs countered that a general mandate had been issued, without limiting issues, and that a post-trial motion was not required because the improper directed verdict had changed the “tenor” of the remaining trial issues, making a new trial on all issues appropriate.

The circuit court denied a motion in limine which had sought to limit the issues but certified a question as to whether the prior appellate ruling “requires a trial de novo on all claims.” The appellate court accepted that appeal, and answered the question in the affirmative, that the new trial was to be on all issues.

The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court, answering the certified question in the negative and remanded to the circuit court “to conduct a new trial on the issue of informed consent.” The first appeal “could not require a new trial de novo on all claims due to plaintiffs’ failure to challenge the jury’s verdict” via a post-trial motion, as required by statute.

The court stated that there are two exceptions to the requirement that a post-trial motion be filed following a jury trial: First, where the jury has failed to reach a verdict; and second, after the circuit court directs a verdict on all issues. The court discussed permutations on those themes at some length. The court also listed the policy reasons buttressing the requirement of a post-trial motion following a jury trial. “Foremost” among those reasons is that “this court has long favored the correction of errors at the circuit court level.”

Chief Justice Burke concurred in the result but based upon different reasons. Encapsulated, she reasoned: “An erroneous directed verdict is not a trial error or ‘an error prior to the entry of judgment.’ Rather, a directed verdict is itself a judgment.” Thus, when the first appellate opinion reversed the “judgment” of the circuit court, it was necessarily referring only to the directed judgment. The Chief Justice also noted that the Federal Rules have replaced the term “directed verdict” with “judgment as a matter of law,” and that the pertinent Illinois practice is modeled on the federal rules.

In dissent, Justice Kilbride a) asserted that leave to appeal was improvidently granted, for failure to meet the criteria of Rule 315(a);  b) developed his view that the certified question does not properly support a Rule 308 appeal, because it is entirely case-specific; and c) disagreed with the majority’s resolution on the merits because it rested upon what he believes to be error in confusing a party’s forfeiture of an argument with a reviewing court’s power to grant relief.