The Illinois Supreme Court handed down five opinions on Thursday, December 3. They included opinions in two criminal cases and three civil cases.

In People v. Reed, the court answered the question of whether a guilty plea prevents a defendant from later asserting an actual innocence claim under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act. In People v. Knapp, the court considered a case in which the defendant, after his attempted murder conviction was affirmed on appeal, filed a post-conviction petition that alleged that his waiver of his right to testify was neither knowingly nor voluntarily made.

In State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Elmore, the court considered the meaning and enforceability of a “mechanical device” exclusion in an automobile insurance policy that covered a grain truck used in a grain farming operation. In Gillespie v. Edmier, the court agreed that the defendant manufacturer was not entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff’s strict product liability claims. In People ex rel. Lisa Madigan v. Stateline Recycling, LLC, the court reviewed a contempt order and remanded a case involving a civil enforcement action brought by the Attorney General under the Illinois Environmental Protection Act.

People v. Reed

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

Today, the Illinois Supreme Court answered the question of whether a guilty plea prevents a defendant from later asserting an actual innocence claim under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act. The court held that such a claim is not foreclosed by a guilty plea. But, the court went on to affirm the denial of Demario Reed’s post-conviction actual innocence claim on its merits.

In 2015, Reed pled guilty to a charge of armed violence in exchange for a 15-year sentence. The factual basis supporting the plea provided that a police officer observed Reed flee from the police and described him as running oddly. The police gave chase, and Reed was located in a bedroom of the house into which he had fled. A shotgun and cocaine were also found in the house, and Reed’s DNA was on the gun.

In a post-conviction petition filed in 2016, Reed asserted that he was actually innocent of armed violence because he did not reside at the home where the gun and drugs were found, did not have actual possession of the gun or drugs, was not linked to the drugs with DNA evidence, and was found in a different room from where the gun was located. The petition was supported by the affidavit of a co-defendant, Davie Callaway, stating that he owned the cocaine, and that Reed had no knowledge of the presence of drugs in the residence. Callaway testified consistently with his affidavit at the evidentiary hearing. The circuit court found Callaway’s testimony not credible and not of such conclusive character as to probably change the result on retrial and denied the petition.

On appeal, the Fourth District affirmed the denial on the basis that a knowing and voluntary guilty plea forecloses a post-conviction claim of actual innocence. The Supreme Court disagreed.

The court acknowledged that plea bargaining is an important part of the justice system, providing benefits, and also consequences, to both the state and defendants. Looking to its opinion in People v. Washington, 171 Ill. 2d 475 (1996) (holding that a claim of actual innocence is cognizable under the PC Act), however, the court concluded that a plea is not a barrier to asserting innocence because “a truly persuasive demonstration of innocence” implicates substantive due process concerns.

While plea bargaining is essential to the criminal justice system, it is not designed to guarantee the factual validity of a conviction. Indeed, a court can accept a guilty plea even in the face of a defendant’s assertion of innocence so long as a sufficient factual basis exists. Accordingly, a defendant’s waiver of his right to hold the state to its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt at trial does not prevent him from later challenging his conviction with compelling evidence of innocence.

The court went on to clarify the standard which must be met for a guilty plea defendant to succeed on a post-conviction claim of actual innocence. Because there was no trial, and thus an incomplete presentation of evidence against the defendant at the original proceedings, the court determined that a higher standard than that established in Washington (new evidence would probably change the result on retrial) should apply. For a guilty plea defendant to succeed on an actual innocence claim, he must show that the new evidence “clearly and convincingly demonstrates that a trial would probably result in acquittal.”

Applying that standard here, the court rejected defendant’s claim of innocence. Specifically, the court held that the circuit court’s finding that Callaway was not credible was not manifestly erroneous.

Justice Michael Burke authored a special concurrence explaining that he would have set an even higher standard for post-guilty-plea claims of actual innocence. Specifically, Justice Burke would require a showing that “no reasonable fact finder could have convicted” defendant. Also, noting that the instant case arose from a successive post-conviction petition, he would give greater flexibility to circuit courts to deny leave to file such a petition unless the petition demonstrated a reasonable probability that defendant could establish by clear and convincing evidence that no reasonable fact finder would have convicted him. Applying this standard, Justice Burke concluded that defendant should not even have been granted leave to file his petition here.

People v. Knapp

By Jay Wiegman, Office of the State Appellate Defender

The Post‑Conviction Hearing Act provides a three‑stage procedural mechanism for a criminal defendant to challenge his or her conviction or sentence for violations of federal or state constitutional rights. 725 ILCS 5/122‑1 et seq. At the first stage, within 90 days after the petition is filed and docketed, a circuit court shall dismiss a petition summarily if the court determines it is frivolous or patently without merit. The threshold for a petition to survive the first stage of review is low, because most post-conviction petitions are drafted by pro se petitioners. People v. Hodges, 234 Ill. 2d 1, 9 (2009). As a result, a petition may be summarily dismissed as frivolous or patently without merit at the first stage only if the petition has no arguable basis either in law or in fact, or when the petition relies on an indisputably meritless legal theory or a fanciful factual allegation. Where a petition asserts that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance, the petition should not be summarily dismissed if (1) it is arguable that counsel’s performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) it is arguable that the petitioner was prejudiced.

In People v. Knapp, 2020 IL 124992, the Illinois Supreme Court considered a case in which the defendant, after his attempted murder conviction was affirmed on appeal, filed a post-conviction petition that alleged, among other things, that his waiver of his right to testify was neither knowingly nor voluntarily made because defense counsel told the defendant that he could not testify where his proposed testimony was not supported by independent evidence, but failed to inform the defendant that counsel possessed police reports and other evidence that would have corroborated the defendant’s version of the offense. In his petition, the defendant acknowledged that he told the trial court, during a colloquy about his right to testify, that it was his choice to not testify, but alleged that he gave the answers he did only because he was misled by counsel.

The circuit court summarily dismissed the petition, concluding that petitioner’s claims were frivolous and patently without merit. The Appellate Court, Second District, affirmed, concluding that the record positively rebutted petitioner’s claim because of the defendant’s statements to the court when he was advised of his right to testify. Alternatively, even if petitioner alleged the gist of a claim of constitutionally deficient performance from trial counsel, the court reasoned that petitioner’s claim still failed because petitioner did not sufficiently allege prejudice under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). The dissenting justice argued that the majority erroneously applied heightened post-conviction standards to the trial court’s first‑stage summary dismissal of the petition and misconstrued petitioner’s claim about his right to testify. The dissent argued that the record did not positively rebut petitioner’s claim because petitioner relied on off‑the‑record conversations with counsel. People v. Knapp, 2019 IL App (2d) 160162 ¶¶ 70‑134 (McLaren, J., dissenting).

The Illinois Supreme Court allowed the defendant’s petition for leave to appeal, and a divided court affirmed the circuit court’s dismissal of the post-conviction petition, rejecting the defendant’s argument that the circuit court applied “too stringent of a standard” and misunderstood his right-to-testify claim, by concluding that the claim was rebutted by the record. Writing for the four-person majority (Justice Michael Burke took no part in the consideration or decision of the case), Justice Kilbride noted that, while the Appellate Court majority had cited two decisions involving second-stage dismissals, it had also cited several applicable first-stage decisions, including Hodges. Further, because its review was de novo, the majority considered the defendant’s substantive claim and determined that the defendant failed to preserve his right to testify because he failed to make a “contemporaneous assertion” of that right. The majority stated that the record contained nothing to suggest the defendant alerted the trial court of his desire to testify, that he had any questions or was otherwise unsure about waiving his right. In particular, the court noted that the defendant’s off-the-record conversations with counsel occurred before the circuit court’s admonishments, and thus the defendant had opportunity – when the court told him the decision whether or not to testify belonged to the defendant – to alert the court that he wanted to testify but counsel had told him he could not. In finding that the defendant’s responses to the trial court’s admonishments rebutted his allegations that his decision to not testify was involuntary because it was based on erroneous advice from counsel, the majority acknowledged the Seventh Circuit recently indicated concern about “the obligation that Illinois caselaw appears to impose upon a defendant to contemporaneously assert a right to testify in circumstances where defense counsel has just silenced the defendant.” Knapp, 2020 IL 124992, ¶ 55, citing Hartsfield v. Dorethy, 949 F.3d 307, 315 n.5. (7th Cir. 2020). The majority readily distinguished Hartsfield on the basis that Hartsfield and his mother both said that even though that defendant told counsel he wanted to testify, his attorney said he would not put the defendant on the stand and then “shushed” the defendant when he tried to tell the court he wanted to testify. Moreover, the trial court in Hartsfield apparently never gave Hartsfield any admonishments about his right to testify. Finally, the Knapp majority observed that the United States Supreme Court has never articulated the standard for assessing whether a criminal defendant has validly waived his right to testify or determined who has the burden of production and proof under particular circumstance. As a result, the majority adhered to Illinois law.

Chief Justice Burke dissented, with opinion, and was joined by Justice Neville. The Chief Justice stated that the majority effectively concluded that no matter how mistaken or ill-informed an attorney’s advice might be, it has no effect on the defendant’s decision to testify if the defendant tells the trial court he has no questions about testifying. The Chief Justice considered this an unreasonable result, and adopted the analysis and conclusion reached by Justice McLaren in his dissent in the Appellate Court below.

Justice Neville wrote a separate dissent. He agreed with the Chief Justice that Justice McLaren’s dissent correctly analyzed and resolved the first-stage post-conviction question presented by this case. Justice Neville wrote separately to highlight the well-settled rule that, at the first-stage, the trial court is limited to examining the pleadings to determine whether the petition alleges a constitutional infirmity or denial of rights that requires relief. Factual and credibility determinations are precluded at the first stage.

State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. v. Elmore, 2020 IL 125441

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

At issue in this case was the meaning and enforceability of a “mechanical device” exclusion in an automobile insurance policy that covered a grain truck used in a grain farming operation. In an opinion written by Justice Michael Burke, a unanimous court (with Justice Kilbride taking no part), reversed a divided appellate court that found the exclusion ambiguous and unenforceable.

Defendant Kent Elmore backed up the grain truck to an auger that was powered by a tractor. The auger’s hopper, which was located beneath the grain truck’s dumping shoot, moved the grain from the grain truck up and dumped it into a transport truck. He was injured when he stepped onto the auger and exposed his foot to the turning shaft, ultimately resulting in the amputation of his leg above the knee.

The State Farm policy excluded damages resulting from the movement of property by means of a mechanical device, other than a hand truck, that was not attached to the insured vehicle. State Farm sought a declaratory judgment that coverage was precluded because the auger was a mechanical device that was not attached to the grain truck.

Applying the rule of contract construction to give terms their plain, ordinary, and popular meaning, the court agreed with State Farm that the mechanical device exclusion was unambiguous and excluded coverage. Citing dictionary definitions for “mechanical” and “device,” the court found that the grain auger was “mechanical” because it was a machine or tool designed to move grain and that the auger was a “device” because it was “‘operated by a machine or tool’ (a tractor).” In addition, the auger was not attached to the grain truck. The court criticized the appellate court majority’s finding of ambiguity based, in part, on the fact that three out-of-state cases applied similar mechanical device exclusions only to self-powered or motorized devices. According to the court, those cases contained no such requirement; and to impose such a requirement would ignore the plain meaning of the contract terms.

The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the mechanical device exclusion should be read with another exclusion so that it applied only to the situation where property is being moved onto the grain truck. According to the court, that interpretation would make another subsection of the exclusion nonsensical. The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the policy was meant to cover other farm implements, not just the unloading of property from the insured truck by hand or with a small hand truck or wheelbarrow. It found nothing in the automobile policy to indicate that intent.

Lastly, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the mechanical device exclusion was unenforceable and against public policy because it conflicted with a mandatory omnibus coverage statute, namely, section 7-317(b)(2) of the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/7-317(b)(2) (West 2012)), which requires that an owner’s policy of liability insurance insure the owner and permitted users for their use of the motor vehicle. Relying on its decision in Progressive Universal Insurance Co. of Illinois v. Liberty Mutual Fire Insurance Co., 215 Ill. 2d 121, 137-38 (2005), the court reiterated that exclusions of certain risks from liability coverage are permissible so long as there is no differentiation between named insureds and permissive users. No such differentiation existed, as the defendant seemed to concede.

Gillespie v. Edmier, 2020 IL 125262

By Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC

This product liability action arose from an accident involving a truck driver injured when working on a dump trailer manufactured by defendant East Manufacturing Corporation. The injured driver, Dale Gillespie, and his wife filed a lawsuit against several defendants, but only East Manufacturing was a party to the appeal, in which the Supreme Court considered whether the record presented a genuine issue of material fact that the trailer was unreasonably dangerous, based on a design defect, at the time it left the manufacturer’s control.

In reviewing the trial court’s entry of summary judgment for the manufacturer and the appellate court’s decision to reverse the summary judgment order, the Supreme Court focused its discussion on the testimony of plaintiffs’ expert, Gary Hutter, who opined that the trailer’s cast iron steps were defective and unreasonably dangerous. Six justices of the court agreed that the defendant manufacturer was not entitled to summary judgment on the plaintiff’s strict product liability claims. One justice recused himself, and the participating justices split evenly in their reasoning.

Justice Kilbride, writing the lead opinion joined by Chief Justice Anne Burke and Justice Theis, recounted the applicable principles of Illinois product liability law, the “consumer-expectation” and “risk utility” tests, and the variety of factors that may be relevant to proving a product liability claim, including government regulations and industry standards. Mr. Hutter relied on those types of standards and regulations addressing the design of steps and ladders in reaching his design defect opinion. East Manufacturer argued that the appellate court erred in reversing the summary judgment order, because Mr. Hutter relied on sources not applicable to the dump trailer and, thus, irrelevant to the case.

The Supreme Court sided with the Gillespies. Separating the issue of what data a witness may rely on to explain the basis for an expert opinion from whether the data may be admitted as substantive evidence, the court found Mr. Hutter’s deposition testimony sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the dump trailer was unreasonably dangerous and affirmed the judgment of the appellate court.

Justice Karmeier wrote a special concurrence joined by Justice Garman and Justice Michael Burke. While agreeing that his colleagues reached the correct conclusion, Justice Karmeier emphasized the role of trial judges as gatekeepers who must bar trial testimony that is not sufficiently relevant or lacking a reliable basis. Justice Karmeier also observed that the gatekeeping function requires a trial judge to determine whether an expert may testify to the basis of his opinion; in some instances experts may properly rely upon information that should not be presented to the jury. Also, unlike the lead opinion, the special concurrence separately addressed plaintiffs’ failure to warn claim, which Justice Karmeier deemed sufficiently supported by the evidence.

People ex rel. Lisa Madigan v. Stateline Recycling, LLC, 2020 IL 124417

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

In this civil enforcement action brought by the Attorney General under the Illinois Environmental Protection Act (415 ILCS 5/1 et seq.), the state sought to inspect the real estate owned by one of the defendants. The state initiated its request by seeking pretrial discovery inspection under Supreme Court Rule 214(a). The owner objected and refused to comply with the order compelling discovery entered subsequent to that objection. The circuit court held the owner in contempt so that she could file this appeal.

Defendant’s objection was that the site inspection improperly sought to circumvent the constitutional requirement for a warrant and violated the fourth amendment of the United States Constitution and article I, section 6 of the Illinois Constitution. The Attorney General reasoned, in support of the requested inspection, that Rule 214(a)’s plain language applies to all parties in civil litigation, with no exception for a government litigant.

The appellate court reversed, vacated the contempt order, and remanded for further proceeding, reasoning that this was a quasi-criminal proceeding, and that the civil discovery rules do not satisfy the core protections of the fourth amendment.

The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court and remanded the case back to that court for analysis of an issue which had not been decided there. The Supreme Court stated that the only issue that was properly before the appellate court was whether the discovery order constituted an abuse of discretion, but that the appellate court did not resolve that question, but instead held that fourth amendment principles must be applied.

The court invoked the requirement that cases should be decided on nonconstitutional grounds whenever possible. The appellate court’s lengthy and detailed opinion was vacated, and the cause was remanded to the appellate court with the direction to address the alternative nonconstitutional issue of whether the circuit court had abused its discretion.

This opinion contains a short review of the procedural underpinning of an appeal from a finding of contempt in the context of discovery.