The Bar News

Quick takes on Thursday's Illinois Supreme Court opinions

Our panel of leading appellate attorneys review Thursday's Illinois Supreme Court opinions in the civil cases Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Ltd., v. Heritage Bank of Central Illinois and In re A.A. and the criminal cases People v. Wiliams, People v. Guzman and People v. Castleberry.


Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Ltd v. Heritage Bank of Central Illinois

By Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smith LLC

Recognizing that the Mechanics Lien Act protects those who in good faith provide work or material for the construction of buildings, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected a bank’s restrictive read of the Act to invalidate an engineering firm’s statutory lien rights. Glen Harkins, a potential purchaser of property in Peoria County, hired the plaintiff, Christopher B. Burke Engineering, Ltd., to draft and record a plat of subdivision of property owned by Carol Schenk. After Burke had begun its work, Harkins purchased the property. Burke continued to provide its services, including recording the plat, conducting a wetlands survey and planning roads and utilities. Burke billed Harkins over $100,000, but Harkins did not pay. After building one house in the subdivision, Harkins stopped its work and filed for bankruptcy. In a lawsuit to foreclose on the property pursuant to its recorded mechanics lien, Burke looked to the bank that had financed Harkins’ purchase of the property. The bank convinced the circuit court that the lien did not meet the statutory requirements, and the court entered an order granting the bank’s motion for summary judgment, which the appellate court affirmed.

The supreme court reversed based on its analysis of two issues. First, the court rejected the bank’s characterization of the nature of Burke’s work. The bank argued that liens for services performed by architects, engineers, land surveyors or property managers are valid only if the services resulted in a physical improvement to the property or increased its value. Rejecting this argument based on the language of the statute and long-standing precedent, the supreme court found that the “improvement” requirement in the statute is satisfied where, as here, an engineer provides services for the purpose of improving the property. Also, the court found illogical the bank’s argument that a punctuation change in the statute restricted the lien rights of architects, engineers, land surveyors and property managers to raising, lowering and removing houses. This restriction, the court reasoned, would limit the lien rights of such professionals to work they typically do not perform. The court concluded that Burke’s work was done for the purpose of improving the property, as the Act requires.

The supreme court remanded the case for determination of the second issue: whether Schenk, the owner at the time that Burke entered the contract with Harkins, had “knowingly permitted” the contract between Harkins and Burke. That issue was not addressed by the appellate court, and the circuit court only had concluded that Schenk “did not encourage or induce” Burke’s work - a finding that did not answer the question.

In re A.A.

By Alyssa M. Reiter, Williams, Montgomery & John Ltd.

If DNA testing establishes that a man is not a child’s biological father, the trial court need not make a “best interests of the child” determination before granting a petition to vacate a voluntary acknowledgement of paternity.

The Court examined Section 11 of the Parentage Act, which provides in part that when an action is brought to declare the nonexistence of the parent-child relationship, “[i]f the court finds that the conclusion of the expert or experts, as disclosed by the evidence based upon the tests, is that the alleged father is not the parent of the child, the question of paternity shall be resolved accordingly.”

The Court found the statutory language to be “clear and unambiguous.” The statute does not provide for a court to consider the child’s best interests.  The Supreme Court “decline[d] to read into the Parentage Act…language that is not expressed by the legislature.”


People v. Castleberry

By Jay Wiegman, Office of the State Appellate Defender

The Illinois Supreme Court today abolished the "void sentence rule."  The void sentence rule rendered void any sentence that does not conform to a statutory requirement.  In People v. Castleberry, 2015 IL 116916, the Court determined that the void sentence rule is no longer valid in light of its own recent decisions because it is at odds with the grant of jurisdiction given to the circuit courts under the Illinois Constitution.

Castleberry had been convicted  of two counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault, and the circuit court imposed consecutive nine-year terms for each count.  Because the defendant had been armed with a firearm at the time of the offense, the State argued that a mandatory 15-year term must be added to the defendant's sentence on each of the two counts. The circuit court disagreed, and applied just one additional 15-year term to the defendant's aggregate sentence, for a total sentence of 33 years' imprisonment.

The defendant appealed, arguing both that reversible error had occurred during jury selection and that the 15-year enhancement was unconstitutional.  The Appellate Court, First District, affirmed the defendant's convictions and held that the circuit court did not err when it applied the 15-year add-on to one of the defendant's convictions.  The Appellate Court went on to address an argument by the State that the 15-year add-on must be added to both counts.  The Appellate Court agreed and held that the singular 15-year add-on applied in the instant case was void because it did not conform to statutory requirements.  The Appellate Court remanded the matter to the circuit court for resentencing.

On appeal to the Supreme Court, the defendant contended that the Appellate Court erred when it held that the sentence imposed without the statutory enhancement was void because the void sentence rule is no longer valid and therefore was not a proper basis for the Appellate Court's reversal of the circuit court's sentencing order.

Writing for a unanimous Court, Justice Burke first provided the background of the void sentence rule.  Justice Burke explained that whether a judgment is void or merely voidable presents a question of jurisdiction.  Where jurisdiction is lacking, the resulting judgment is void and may be attacked at any time.  By contrast, a voidable judgment is one entered erroneously by a court that had jurisdiction and is not subject to collateral attack.

Although jurisdiction is most commonly understood as consisting of two elements, subject matter jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction, the Court noted that it has at times held that the power to render particular judgments or sentences is an equally important element of jurisdiction.
Thus, the rule has developed that, where a circuit court violates a particular statutory requirement when imposing a sentence, that court acts without "inherent authority" or "inherent power."  And where a court acts without power, it has acted without jurisdiction.

In decisions such as Steinbrecher v. Steinbrecher, 197 Ill.2d 514 (2001), however, the Supreme Court began to conclude that the "inherent power" idea of jurisdiction is at odds with the jurisdiction granted circuit courts by the state constitution. One year later, in Belleville Toyota, Inc. v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc, 199 Ill.2d 325 (2002), the Court reiterated that a statutory requirement is not a jurisdictional prerequisite. In LVNV Funding, LLC v. Trice, 2015 IL 116129, the Court stated that the failure to satisfy a certain statutory requirement or prerequisite cannot deprive the circuit court of its power or jurisdiction to hear a cause of action.  More recently, the Court in LVNV Funding noted that Streinbrecher had concluded that the "inherent power" requirement applies to courts of limited jurisdiction and administrative agencies, but not to circuit courts. As a result, the Court in LVNV Fundingdeclared that a judgment is rendered void only where the circuit court lacks personal jurisdiction or subject matter jurisdiction.  Noting that the State agreed that the void sentence rule can no longer be considered valid, the Court abolished the rule.

Though agreeing that the void sentence rule was invalid, the State asserted that the Appellate Court acted properly when it increased the defendant's sentence at the request of the State.  The Court held that the State is not permitted to appeal a sentencing order.  And to the extent that an Appellate Court is authorized to modify sentences, that authority is limited to sentence reductions only.  The Court noted that the State has the option  of requesting relief by a writ of mandamus.


People v. Williams

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

At issue was whether the Class 4 felony provision of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon (in a vehicle or on a public way, and without a FOID card) [720 ILCS 5/24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(C), (a)(2), (a)(3)(C) (West 2012)] violated the proportionate penalties clause of the Illinois Constitution because mere possession of a weapon without a FOID card is punishable only as a Class A misdemeanor under the FOID Card Act [430 ILCS 65/2(a)(1) (West 2012)].  Juan Williams had been arrested for possessing a firearm while in a vehicle on a public street.

In a unanimous opinion, the Illinois Supreme Court rejected the proportionate penalties challenge.  The Court affirmed that the “identical elements” test, first used by the Court in 1990, continues to be the applicable standard for proportionate penalties challenges.  Here, the AUUW statute has the additional element that the offense must occur either in a vehicle or on a public way, while the FOID card violation could be based on mere possession within the home.  Because the two offenses did not have the same elements, they could not be validly compared for proportionate penalties purposes.

The Court also discussed Aguilar as related to the AUUW offense, noting that the “location element” of the AUUW charge at issue is constitutional when combined with the “no-FOID-card” element.  That is, the right to possess a firearm outside the home is subject to the “meaningful regulation” of having a valid FOID card.

People v. Guzman

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

Jorge Guzman pled guilty to aggravated possession of stolen firearms in exchange for a four-year prison sentence.  During the plea hearing, the trial court inquired of defendant whether he was a US citizen.  Defendant initially stated that he was a citizen, but promptly clarified that he was a permanent legal resident.  The court did not admonish him about the potential immigration consequences of his plea pursuant to 725 ILCS 5/113-8.

Defendant sought to withdraw his plea, alleging he did not enter it voluntarily where he was not admonished pursuant to Section 113-8.  The motion was denied, and defendant appealed.  Initially, the appellate court reversed, and the Supreme Court remanded for the appellate court to consider whether the absence of the statutory admonishment permitted withdrawal of the plea under Padilla.  On remand, the appellate court again reversed the denial of the motion to withdraw but then, on rehearing, affirmed the trial court on the basis that immigration consequences were collateral consequences that did not affect the voluntariness of the plea, citing Delvillar, 235 Ill. 2d 507 (2009).

In the Supreme Court, defendant argued that Delvillar should be overruled in light of Padilla.  The Court declined to do so, affirming its holding in Delvillar that immigration consequences are collateral “[b]ecause state courts do not control the immigration decisions of governmental agencies”.

The Court distinguished Padilla because it involved a Sixth Amendment challenge (ineffective assistance of counsel) while the instant case and Delvillar involved Fifth Amendment (due process) challenges.

The Court also rejected defendant’s assertion that trial courts have little incentive to admonish in accordance with Section 113-8 in the absence of adverse consequences for not doing so.  The Supreme Court noted that Canon 3 of the Code of Judicial Conduct requires judge to perform all the duties of their office and found it unlikely that trial judges would knowingly fail to give required admonishments.

The Court concluded by emphasizing that under Padilla, constitutionally effective defense counsel must advise non-citizen clients that pending criminal charges may carry a risk of adverse immigration consequences.

Thus, non-citizen defendants who do not receive that advice from counsel may still be entitled to relief if they can make the required showing of prejudice.

Posted on November 19, 2015 by Chris Bonjean
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