Our panel of leading appellate attorneys reviews the four Illinois Supreme Court opinions handed down Thursday, June 16.

Holm v. Kodat, 2022 IL 127511

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

The Mazon River is 28 miles long, ending in the Illinois River near Morris. It contains and abuts large deposits of fossils. The Court’s opinion by Justice Carter relates that this area is world-famous. It is a National Historic landmark which contains “extraordinary fossils with exceptional preservation.”

Plaintiffs and defendants own separate parcels of property along the river. Plaintiffs operate a fossil hunting business and allege that at least one of the defendants is a competitor. Plaintiffs filed this complaint for declaratory judgment seeking to establish their right to kayak the entire length of the river free of claims of trespass which had been formally asserted by the defendants. There was no dispute that this river is nonnavigable. The opinion of the appellate court developed the law that “a river or stream is navigable in fact if it naturally, by customary modes of transportation, is of sufficient depth to afford a channel for use for commerce.”

The issue presented is whether owners of some adjoining property have the right to travel the entire length of the river, and conversely whether other owners may successfully raise objections to that. With respect to navigable streams, the right of a riparian owner is subject to a public easement to use the river for navigation purposes. For nonnavigable waterways, the riparian owner owns the bed of the stream free from any burdens in favor of the public. In Beacham v Lake Zurich Property Owners Ass’n., 123 Ill.2d 227 (1988), the court held that owners of the bed of a private, nonnavigable lake have the right to the reasonable use of the surface of the entire lake. However, the Illinois Supreme Court here relied on significant differences between lakes and flowing streams to conclude that Beacham does not apply.

The Court, affirming the circuit court (Daugherity, J., now on the Third District) and the Third District, rejected plaintiffs’ request to hold that riparian owners have the right to use the entire length of the river to cross the property of other riparian owners without their permission. The Court allowed briefs amicus curiae from the Forest Preserve District of Will County in support of plaintiffs and from the Illinois Agricultural Association in support of defendants.

The Court relied on a discretionary exception to forfeiture where an issue is “inextricably intertwined” with other issues properly before the court.

Justice Neville, joined by Chief Justice Anne M. Burke, specially concurred, asserting the belief that “it is time for Illinois to move away from its common law that limits the use of nonnavigable lakes, rivers, and streams to riparian landowners and move to the recreational navigation doctrine, so that all waterways are available to the public for recreational use.”

People v. Brown, 2022 IL 127201

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

In 2020, Vivian Brown’s case first made its way to the Illinois Supreme Court on direct appeal from a White County order finding (1) that Section 2(a)(1) of the FOID Card Act was unconstitutional as applied to Brown’s possession of a firearm in her own home under the Second Amendment and (2) that the information charging Brown with violating Section 2(a)(1) failed to state an offense because the legislature did not intend that it apply to possession of a firearm in the home. In that matter, the Illinois Supreme Court concluded that a direct appeal was not available to Brown because “when a circuit court declares a statute unconstitutional and, at the same time, provides an alternative, nonconstitutional basis for relief, the finding of unconstitutionality cannot…properly serve as a basis for direct supreme court review.” Accordingly, the Court vacated the finding of unconstitutionality as unnecessary and remanded the cause to the circuit court with directions to enter a modified judgment order excluding that finding.

The proceedings on remand occurred before a different judge because the original judge had since retired. The circuit court first entered the modified order as directed. Brown then filed a motion to reconsider, asking the court to vacate its modified order. Without a hearing or response from the State, the circuit court granted Brown’s motion to reconsider, vacated its modified order, and reinstated the charge. Brown then filed a new motion challenging the constitutionality of the statute. The circuit court granted that motion and entered an order containing only the finding that Section 2(a)(1) was unconstitutional. The State again appealed directly to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The Illinois Supreme Court today held that the circuit court had no authority to enter the orders granting Brown’s motion to reconsider and finding the statute unconstitutional because those orders exceeded the scope of the Court’s prior mandate. Per that prior remand, the only thing the circuit court had the authority to do was to enter the modified order without the finding of unconstitutionality.

The circuit court’s entry of a modified order, pursuant to the mandate of the Illinois Supreme Court, was not subject to reconsideration. As the Court noted, the modified order was not truly the circuit court’s order at that point. Instead, it was the judgment of the Illinois Supreme Court, entered via ministerial act of the circuit court. Had Brown wished to challenge that order, she could have filed a petition for rehearing in the Illinois Supreme Court at the time its judgment was entered, but she did not. While “the parties are clearly anxious” for the Illinois Supreme Court to review the constitutionality of Section 2(a)(1), they cannot obtain that review here. Accordingly, the Court vacated the circuit court’s orders on the motion to reconsider and subsequently finding the statute unconstitutional, directed the circuit court to reenter its order complying with the Illinois Supreme Court’s prior mandate, and instructed that the circuit court not entertain “any motions from any party” or take any additional action on remand.

Justice Michael Burke dissented, joined by Justices Garman and Overstreet. The dissent concluded that the circuit court had not overruled the Illinois Supreme Court’s prior decision by its actions because the Illinois Supreme Court had not ruled on the merits of the statutory claim in its prior decision. Instead, the circuit court simply vacated its own finding on the statutory issue, which it had the authority to do.

People v. Aljohani, 2022 IL 127037

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

In 2015, Abdullah Aljohani was charged with the stabbing death of his brother, Talal Aljohani. Prior to trial, Abdullah sought to suppress evidence. In the motion, Abdullah challenged the police officers’ warrantless entry to his apartment, which led to the discovery of Talal’s body and other physical evidence. The circuit court denied Abdullah’s motion, relying on the community caretaking doctrine, and the appellate court affirmed, relying on the emergency aid exception to the warrant requirement. The Illinois Supreme Court affirmed on the basis of the emergency aid exception.

Warrantless searches and seizures within one’s home are presumptively unreasonable given that “the home is first among equals” when it comes to the Fourth Amendment. That presumption may be overcome in certain circumstances, including where there are exigent circumstances. One such exigency can be found when there is a need to provide aid to persons who are seriously injured or threatened with such injury. The Illinois Supreme Court then adopted the test set forth in People v. Lomax, 2012 IL App (1st) 103016, for determining whether the emergency aid exception applies. Specifically, the emergency aid doctrine requires that the police have (1) reasonable grounds to believe an emergency exists and (2) a reasonable basis, approximating probable cause, connecting the emergency with the place to be entered or searched.

Here, the police responded to an early-morning 911 call from an apartment resident, reporting loud arguing and wrestling in Abdullah’s upstairs apartment, followed by someone saying “Are you okay?” and “Get up.” When the police went to Abdullah’s apartment to investigate, Abdullah opened the door about a foot, said everything was okay, and told the police that his brother Talal was sleeping. The officers went back downstairs, spoke with the 911 caller who believed that someone in the apartment had been injured, and then returned to Abdullah’s apartment. This time, they received no answer in response to several minutes of knocking. The police then returned to their squad car, preparing to leave, but concluded that “something didn’t feel right.”

Upon driving around to the alley behind the apartment, the police observed that a back gate was open, the garage door was open, and a side door to the building was open. The officers went back into the building, proceeded upstairs, and discovered the door to Abdullah’s apartment wide open. They knocked and announced their presence, received no response, and entered the apartment where the found Talal unresponsive in a bedroom.

On these facts, the Illinois Supreme Court found that the totality of the circumstances supported application of the emergency aid exception. The passage of 15-to-20 minutes between when the officers initially arrived and when they entered Abdullah’s apartment was not fatal. During that time, the officers were investigating the incident and developed additional facts supporting the reasonable belief that an emergency existed inside the apartment.

After finding that the emergency aid exception applied, the Court briefly addressed the issue of community caretaking, noting that the United States Supreme Court recently held in Caniglia v. Strom, 141 S. Ct. 1596 (2021), that an officer’s community caretaking duties do not create a standalone doctrine justifying warrantless searches and seizures within the home. Because this case was decided on the basis of the emergency aid exception, however, the Court did not further address community caretaking.

People v. Leib, 2022 IL 126645

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

Donald Leib was a registered sex offender as the result of a 2007 conviction of child abduction for attempting to lure a child into a vehicle without parental consent. In 2015, Leib attended the Queen of Martyrs Fest with his brother and his brother’s family. The Fest consisted of a carnival, games, and food, and was a fundraiser for both the Queen of Martyrs church and school. The event was held in a parking lot across the street from the church and school. At the festival, one of Leib’s neighbors noticed him and informed a police officer who was present that Leib was a registered sex offender. The officer approached Leib, confirmed his identity and status, and told him he should not be there. Leib agreed and left.

Leib was subsequently charged with knowingly being present on real property comprising any school when persons under the age of 18 were present, in violation of 720 ILCS 5/11-9.3(a). At issue before the Illinois Supreme Court was whether the parking lot in question was “real property comprising any school,” and if so, whether Leib knew he was on such property. The Court answered both questions in the affirmative.

Whether the parking was “real property comprising any school” was a question of statutory interpretation. Leib argued that the parking lot did not fit within the definition because it was separated from the school property by a public street. The Court disagreed. While the term “real property comprising any school” is not defined in the statute, the Court looked to the definition of “comprising” and determined that property can be “comprising” a school if it is “made up” of the school, constitutes the school, or is “included especially within a particular scope” of the school. Such property is not required to be contiguous with the school. Thus, the parking lot across the street from the church and school was “real property comprising any school.”

The Court went on to find that the evidence was sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Leib knew he was on “real property comprising any school” when he attended the Queen of Martyrs Fest. Leib’s brother, a parishioner at the church, testified that he believed the parking lot was church property, but the church pastor testified that people understood the church and school to be synonymous with one another. The police officer and Leib’s neighbor said they believed the festival to be a school function, though the flyer advertising the festival did not reference it as such. The festival consisted of children’s rides in the parking lot, as well as in the street between the lot and the school, which had been blocked off to accommodate the festival. And, the Court found it significant that, when approached by the officer, Leib agreed he should not be at the festival and left without protest. The Court found this evidence not so improbable or unsatisfactory as to create a reasonable doubt of defendant’s awareness of the substantial probability that he was present on school property when he attended the festival.

Chief Justice Burke, joined by Justice Neville, dissented. The dissent agreed with the majority that the parking lot was real property comprising any school but disagreed that the evidence was sufficient to prove defendant’s knowledge of that fact. The dissent noted that there was no evidence of any signage putting Leib on notice that the parking lot was school property. Instead, the only sign in the parking lot referenced the church’s weekly bingo night. Similarly, the flyer for the festival did not mention the school, and there was no evidence Leib had ever been to the location previously. While some witnesses testified to knowing that the lot was both church and school property, others said they believed it was church property. And, while the festival’s rides continued into the street and even into the alley behind the school, the evidence was that Leib was only present in the parking lot and not in those other locations. Leib did not behave evasively, and he agreed to leave when the officer approached and told him that he was on school property and that people were “uncomfortable” with him being there. Indeed, the dissent noted, had Leib acted otherwise, that would have been relied on as consciousness of guilt, as well, putting him into a Catch-22.