Our panel of leading appellate attorneys reviews the one civil and one criminal opinion handed down Tuesday, July 18, 2023, by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Rowe v. Raoul, 2023 IL 129248

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

This case involves the constitutionality of the Safety Accountability, Fairness and Equity (SAFE-T) Act (Pub. Act. No. 101-652 (eff. Jan. 1, 2023)), as amended by Public Act 102-1104 (Pub. Act. No. 102-1104 (eff. Jan. 1, 2023)) (together referred to as the Act). Among other things, the Act amended statutory provisions governing pretrial release of criminal defendants, such as eliminating the monetary bail system, but allowing the State to seek, and the trial court to order, pretrial detention of criminal defendants in certain specified cases.

The circuit court of Kankakee County held that certain provisions of the Act violated the bail clause (Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 9), the crime victims’ rights clause (id. § 8.1(a)(9)), and the separation of powers clause (id. art. II, § 1) of the Illinois Constitution of 1970. On direct review and in a 5-2 decision authored by Chief Justice Theis, with a special concurrence by Justice O’Brien and a dissent by Justice Overstreet, joined by Justice Holder White, the Court majority reversed the circuit court.

The majority opinion began its analysis by reciting bedrock principles for deciding constitutional claims, noting the broad powers of the legislature, limited only by the constitution, and the limited powers of the court to declare a statute unconstitutional, i.e., in rare circumstances when it is impossible to do otherwise. Constitutional provisions, like statutes, are construed by looking at the plain language and when unambiguous, giving that language effect without resort to other aids for construction.

Addressing the first issue, whether the Act violated the bail clause of the constitution, the majority rejected the trial court’s reasoning in three respects. The trial court ignored the plain language of the constitution, which did not include the term “monetary” or “cement the practice of monetary bail.” Second, the trial court incorrectly assumed that abolishing monetary bail undermined the State’s interests. On that point, the Illinois Supreme Court found that the Act’s pretrial release provisions complemented the bail clause by allowing the State to seek, and the trial court to order, pretrial detention of certain criminal defendants. Lastly, the Court found that the trial court misapprehended the intent of the drafters of the bail clause. Tracing that clause to the Illinois Constitution of 1818 and the dictionary definition of bail at that time, the Court noted that there was no mention of money as the sole or even primary means of providing security for a defendant’s appearance. According to the Court, there was a clear understanding by the drafters of each constitution since 1818 that the approach to bail would evolve and that bail reform would be a process in which the legislature would engage.

The Court also reversed the trial court’s ruling that the pretrial release provisions of the Act violated the crime victims’ rights clause of the constitution, again for three reasons. The trial court ignored the plain language of the crime victims’ rights clause, which mentioned the “amount of bail,” not the amount of “monetary” bail. According to the Illinois Supreme Court, “the word ‘amount’ connotes quantity and does not only mean a quantity of money but rather, . . . a quantity of sufficient sureties.” Second, the trial court ignored the fact that the pretrial release provisions of the Act expressly took crime victims into account and secured, rather than contravened, their rights. Third, the trial court failed to grasp that the sole purpose of the crime victims’ rights clause was to protect the victims of crime; nothing in the plain language of that clause showed an intent to upend 174 years of constitutional history of bail in Illinois.

As to the separation of powers clause, the Court majority rejected the trial court’s ruling that the Act interfered with the judiciary’s exercise of its authority. The majority found that the trial court overread People ex rel. Hemingway v. Elrod, 60 Ill. 2d 74 (1975), and its holding on the inherent authority of the court to deny bail. According to the majority, the legislature has long regulated the bail system, setting forth detailed standards and procedures for determining how and when a criminal defendant can be detained or should be released from custody prior to trial.

In conclusion, the Court majority stated that the Illinois Constitution creates a balance between the individual rights of defendants and the individual rights of crime victims. The Act’s pretrial release provisions set forth procedures commensurate with that balance.

Justice O’Brien agreed with the majority but wrote separately to opine on the majority’s failure to address defendants’ affirmative defense that plaintiffs lacked standing. She offered no opinion on whether plaintiffs in fact had standing to pursue their claims, but stated she would simply hold that defendants could not satisfy their burden of proof considering their admission at oral argument that plaintiffs had been injured by the Act.

Justice Overstreet’s dissent, joined by Justice Holder White, opined that the legislature’s abolishment of monetary bail violated the plain language of the crime victims’ rights clause. Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 8.1(a)(9).

Initially, Justice Overstreet addressed, in some depth, the issue of standing. Briefly, Justice Overstreet opined that the plaintiff state’s attorneys met the two elements for standing. (He did not address the standing of the sheriffs, finding it unnecessary to do so.) The standing requirement of an actual controversy existed because, as defendants conceded, the Supreme Court’s resolution of plaintiffs’ claims on their merits served the public’s interest. The plaintiff state’s attorneys satisfied the interest-in-controversy requirement because they had a duty to defend the vested constitutional rights of crime victims and their families under the Counties Code (see 55 ILCS 5/3-9005(a)(1) (West 2020) and the Crime Victims Act (725 ILCS 120/4.5 (West 2020)). Standing aside, Justice Overstreet noted that the Supreme Court could exercise its power to sua sponte consider the constitutionality of the Act.

Turning to the merits, Justice Overstreet opined that the pretrial release provisions of the Act effectively nullified “‘[t]he right to have the safety of the victim and the victim’s family considered in denying or fixing the amount of bail ***.’” (Emphasis original.) Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 8.1(a)(9). He reasoned that in the pretrial release provisions of the Act, there is no set of circumstances in which the safety of crime victims and their families could be considered in setting the amount of bail; “the amount of bail is effectively set at zero for all cases under the Act”.

Justice Overstreet criticized the majority’s assertion that the word “amount” in the crime victims’ rights clause does not pertain to monetary amount, noting that since 1963, the practice of setting an “amount” for monetary bail has been firmly rooted in the Criminal Code.

According to Justice Overstreet, until the state constitution is amended, the safety of crime victims and their families must be considered in setting the amount of bail. Regardless of whether the abolishment of monetary bail might result in greater fairness in the pretrial release process, the legislature overstepped constitutional bounds by infringing on the constitutionally protected right of crime victims and their families.

People v. Washington, 2023 IL 127952

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

Under Illinois law, an individual may obtain a certificate of innocence where he proves, by a preponderance of the evidence, that: (1) he was convicted of and imprisoned for a felony and served at least part of the sentence; (2) his conviction was subsequently reversed or, if a new trial was ordered, he was found not guilty on retrial or was not retried and the charge was dismissed; (3) he is innocent of the charged offense; and (4) he “did not voluntarily cause or bring about his…conviction.” 735 ILCS 5/2-702. A person who obtains a certificate of innocence may then seek compensation from the State by filing an action in the Illinois Court of Claims.

At issue in Wayne Washington’s case was whether he voluntarily brought about his murder conviction. Washington had been arrested in 1993, along with Tyrone Hood, and charged with armed robbery and murder. Washington gave a signed confession to Chicago police after a lengthy interrogation. He later pled guilty in exchange for a 25-year sentence, after Hood was convicted at a trial and sentenced to 75 years. Washington later claimed he had been beaten by Chicago police detectives before signing the confession. In 2015, after an investigation into the case, the State, on its own motion, sought to vacate Washington’s conviction and later dismissed the charges against him. Washington then filed his petition for a certificate of innocence.

At the hearing on his request for a certificate of innocence, Washington argued that his guilty plea and confession were attributable to police coercion and thus were not voluntary. The circuit court denied Washington’s request, and the appellate court affirmed, noting that a petitioner who pled guilty had caused or brought about his conviction and thus could not qualify for a certificate of innocence.

The Illinois Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and held that there is no categorical bar precluding petitioners who pleaded guilty from receiving a certificate of innocence. The Court observed that the plain language of the statute contains no such blanket prohibition. Instead, the statute’s focus is on a petitioner’s voluntary conduct. There is no impediment to obtaining a certificate of innocence where the petitioner was coerced into confessing or pleading guilty.

The Court went on to find that Washington had met his burden here. Under the statute, voluntariness is to be determined on a case-by-case basis, looking at the totality of the circumstances. Here, the State did not participate in the certificate-of-innocence proceedings below, leaving Washington’s evidence of abuse and coercion unrebutted. And, the record included evidence of similar abusive conduct by the same detectives in more than 20 other cases. Accordingly, the totality of the circumstances showed that Washington’s confession was not voluntary, nor was his subsequent guilty plea, and thus he established that he “did not voluntarily cause or bring about” his conviction. The Court remanded to the circuit court with directions to grant Washington a certificate of innocence.

Notably, the Court did not resolve the split in authority over whether the appropriate standard of review to be applied to certificate of innocence determinations is whether the trial court abused its discretion or whether the trial court’s determination was against the manifest weight of the evidence. Instead, the Court held that the outcome would be the same under either standard. And, while the special concurrence urged that the Court should resolve the split, the majority noted that the parties had not briefed or argued the standard-of-review question. Accordingly, the majority concluded that it would be improper to make a pronouncement as to the proper standard, which would then be binding on all lower courts, without the issue being properly raised and argued by the parties.