The Bar News

Quick Takes on Friday's Illinois Supreme Court opinions

Our panel of leading appellate attorneys reviews the Illinois Supreme Court opinions handed down Friday, December 30. The cases are Bremer v. The City of Rockford, Johnson v. Ames, People v. Price, and People v. Smith.


Bremer v. The City of Rockford

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

In three cases since 2003, the Supreme Court has construed the phrase “catastrophic injury” in the Public Safety Benefits Act (820 ILCS 320/10(a)) to be synonymous with an injury resulting in a line-of-duty disability pension under section 4-110 of the Pension Code (40 ILCS 5/4-110). The controlling issue in this case is whether that phrase is also synonymous with an injury resulting in an occupational disease disability pension under section 4-110.1 of the Pension Code. The court, with Justice Thomas writing, unanimously held that the legislature did not intend for that phrase to be synonymous with a disease  which resulted in the award of an occupational disease disability pension. The court stated that its prior cases were based on references in the legislative history to only the “line-of-duty” disability provision, and that nothing in the legislative history  indicated an intent to expand the definition of “catastrophic injury.”

That issue had been presented to the circuit court on cross-motions for summary judgment. Thus, the court entered summary judgment for the defendant City. Justice Kilbride dissented from this latter action, disagreeing with the majority’s position that the filing of cross-motions mandated the conclusion that no question of fact existed. Justice Kilbride is of the opinion that plaintiff’s receipt of an occupational disease disability pension does not preclude him from attempting to establish that he also could have met the requirements for a line-of-duty disability pension for purposes of receiving section 10 benefits.

Johnson v. Ames

By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde Law Offices LLP

On the appellate court’s certificate of importance pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 316, the Illinois Supreme Court reviewed a decision of the Village of Broadview electoral board that a referendum question seeking to impose terms limits on the office of the village president was vague and ambiguous because it was unclear as to whether the limits applied prospectively or retroactively.  

The proposed question stated:

“Shall the terms of office for those persons elected to the office of Village President in the Village of Broadview, at the April 4, 2017 consolidated election, and at each election for said office thereafter, be limited such that no person shall be eligible to seek election to or hold the office of Village President where that person has been previously elected to the office of Village President of the Village of Broadview for two (2) consecutive full four (4) year terms.”

The electoral board, with one dissent, concluded that the proposition was invalid. On judicial review, the circuit court reversed and reinstated the referendum; and the appellate court, in a 2-1 decision, affirmed. The Supreme Court agreed, rejecting the appellant’s argument that the language as to when the “two (2) consecutive full four (4) year terms” must start to trigger ineligibility was vague. Applying well-settled criteria set forth in Leck v. Michaelson, 111 Ill. 2d 523 (1986) and Lipinski v. Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, 114 Ill. 2d 95 (1986), the Court found that the referendum “could stand on its own terms,” was “self-executing,” and did not leave “gaps to be filled by either the legislature or municipal body.”  According to the Court, the initial starting point for determining whether a candidate was “previously elected” was the April 2017 election; and the plain meaning of the referendum was that “one who ‘has been elected *** Village President for two (2) consecutive full four (4) year terms’ when the nominating petition is filed may not ‘seek election or hold the office’ ‘at the April 4, 2017 consolidated election’ or any subsequent election.”

In a special concurring opinion, Justice Thomas questioned the grant of a certificate of importance in this case. He discussed criteria that should be used by the appellate court, including factors relevant for the grant of discretionary review under Rule 315, and opined that the question raised in this appeal was not one of “such importance” because it involved a local matter never to be repeated again. Justice Thomas concluded by expressing hope that the appellate court would excise its powers to compel review with “restraint, sobriety, and cautious discretion.”


People v. Price

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

Damen Price was convicted of aggravated arson and first degree murder of a 4-year-old victim who died in the fire. At trial, Price requested, and was denied, separate verdict forms for the various theories of first degree murder under which he was charged (intentional, knowing, and felony).

Price was sentenced to natural life imprisonment after being found death-penalty eligible, but upon the jury determining he should not be sentenced to death.

In 2012, Price filed a 2-1401 petition for relief from judgment contending that his natural life sentence was void due to the trial court’s refusal of his request for separate verdict forms. As a remedy, Price requested that the general murder verdict be treated as a verdict on felony murder and that he be remanded for resentencing.

During the briefing stage in the Illinois Supreme Court, the Court issued its decision in Castleberry, abolishing the void sentence rule, and following oral argument, the Court ordered supplemental briefing on the issues of whether Castleberry applied retroactively to matters on collateral review and, if so, what impact it would have on this case. In that briefing, the parties relied on Teague v. Lane’s retroactivity analysis, arguing for opposite conclusions. Ultimately, the Court noted that “underlying the application of the Teague analysis is the notion that the new rule, had it been in effect at the time of trial, could have made a difference in the outcome.” The rule announced in Castleberry can make no difference in the outcome of a criminal trial, and thus a Teague analysis is not warranted here.

Instead, the Court applied its “general rule of retroactivity” and concluded that because Price’s 2-1401 petition was pending at the time the rule in Castleberry was announced, it applies to this case. Thus, Price’s assertion that his natural life sentence was “void” could not operate to save his petition from the assertion that it was untimely as it was filed more than two years after he was convicted and sentenced.

Price also argued that Castleberry should not apply at all because his sentence was void for a different reason than that at issue in Castleberry.

Specifically, Price argued that his sentence was imposed in violation of a substantive new rule, specifically the special verdict forms rule announced in Smith and Barney (2009 and 2013 cases requiring separate verdict forms in murder cases where specific findings by the jury could result in different sentencing consequences).  The Court rejected Price’s argument, declining to expand the voidness doctrine to all judgments of conviction and sentence that do not conform to a later announced substantive rule, although it was constitutionally proper at the time of trial.

Finally, defendant asserted that his claim could have been proper in a motion for leave to file successive post-conviction petitions and thus refusal to address the merits was unduly harsh. The Court rejected this argument, noting that the law does not require it to recharacterize a pro se pleading as a post-conviction petition where requested for the first time on appeal, and also that Price should not be permitted to avoid a cause-and-prejudice showing by seeking recharacterization on appeal.

Justice Kilbride authored a special concurrence, stating that he would resolve the substantive issue originally presented in the case because Castleberry “has practically nothing to do with this appeal.” Price did not rely on Arna in his 2-1401 petition, thereby limiting Castleberry’s relevance. Justice Kilbride would have concluded that the violation of Smith’s rule on special verdict forms did not result in a void judgment and thus Price’s 2-1401 petition filed beyond the two-year limitation period was barred on timeliness grounds.

People v. Smith

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

On January 20, 2012, Matthew Smith was charged by indictment with aggravated battery of a corrections officer, a Class 2 felony. The alleged conduct occurred on September 2, 2011. Smith was tried and convicted on April 19, 2013. Subsequently, he was sentenced as a Class X offender, based on his criminal history. Smith was 19 years old when the offense was committed, 20 years old when he was indicated, and 21 years old at the time of trial and sentencing. At issue before the Court was whether Smith was eligible for mandatory Class X sentencing under section 5-4.5-95(b), which provides that “when a defendant, over the age of 21 years, is convicted of a Class 1 or Class 2 felony” and has the requisite prior convictions, he shall be sentenced as a Class X offender.

The appellate court held that the relevant time period was the offender’s age at the time he was charged. The State argued that the relevant time period was the age at the time of conviction. The Supreme Court looked to the plain language of the statute and agreed with the State.

The Court then turned to Smith’s request for cross-relief. Smith asserted that his motion to suppress his statement should have been allowed because he was not read his Miranda rights prior to giving his statement. Smith was an inmate at Pontiac Correctional Center at the time of the incident and at the time he admitted his involvement in the incident. Smith was housed in the most restrictive segregation unit at the time, in a single cell, and was not allowed into the yard with other individuals.

Smith was questioned in a counselor’s office, by a uniformed officer, and was handcuffed throughout the interview. Anytime a segregation unit prisoner is taken from their cell to any other location in the prison, the prisoner is handcuffed. The officer admitted he did not provide Miranda warnings prior to questioning Smith.

The Court upheld the denial of the motion to suppress, discussing Easley, 148 Ill. 2d 281 (1992), and Patterson, 146 Ill. 2d 445 (1992), and concluding that Smith was not in custody for purposes of Miranda. The Miranda custody analysis for prisoners is different from a general custody determination because prison inmates are already “in custody” by nature of their imprisonment. Here, there was nothing inherently coercive about the questioning and Smith’s being handcuffed was no greater restriction on his freedom than any other time that he was moved within the prison.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Freeman discussed that he would have found reversible error in the denial of Smith’s motion to suppress. Justice Freeman acknowledged that Miranda is not implicated in every prisoner interrogation, but also noted the need to vigorously protect a prison inmate’s Fifth Amendment rights. He noted that Smith was interrogated in a police-dominated atmosphere, was the focus of the investigation, and was not informed of his rights pursuant to Miranda. Justice Burke joined the dissent.

The factors for determining whether a prisoner is in custody for Miranda purposes are discussed at some length in the majority opinion and the dissent, and this case will serve as a useful guide to practitioners confronting that issue, especially given that there are relatively few other cases on the subject.

Posted on January 2, 2017 by Mark S. Mathewson

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