The Bar News

Quick Takes on Illinois Supreme Court Opinions Issued Thursday, Oct. 19

Leading appellate attorneys review the Illinois Supreme Court opinions handed down on Thursday, October 19. The cases are People v. Reese, In re Destiny P., and Rozsavolgyi v. The City of Aurora.

People v. Reese

By Jay Wiegman, Office of the State Appellate Defender

In People v. Reese, 2017 IL 120011, the Illinois Supreme Court considered several issues, the most prominent of which was whether the offense of aggravated vehicular hijacking requires proof that the defendant took actual physical possession of a vehicle from the driver. In a 6-1 decision, the court held that the “offense encompasses taking actual possession of a vehicle but may also be committed when a defendant exercises control of the vehicle by use of force or threat of force with the victim still present.”

Three days after he was found guilty of first degree murder in Cook County, Willis Reese attempted to escape from the Department of Corrections after he was escorted to a dermatology clinic. Emerging from a bathroom, the defendant stabbed a Cook County sheriff’s deputy with a metal weapon and ran from the hospital with the deputy in pursuit. Reese ran onto a nearby shuttle bus, threatened to stab the driver, and ordered him to drive. The bus was driven a few feet and then the driver opened the doors to the bus, which caused an abrupt stop. The defendant stabbed the driver three times and was immediately arrested. Reese was charged with several offenses, including aggravated vehicular hijacking, vehicular invasion, attempted armed robbery, and escape.

The defendant represented himself at his jury trial. In accepting the defendant’s waiver of counsel, the circuit court substantially complied with Supreme Court Rule 401(a), but failed to admonish the defendant that any sentence imposed would be served consecutively to the natural life term that had been imposed in his murder case. Before trial, the circuit court indicated that it would allow the state to use the defendant’s first degree murder conviction for impeachment purposes if the defendant testified; and, if the defendant testified about a necessity defense (i.e., if the defendant claimed he tried to escape because he had been beaten by jail guards), the state would be allowed to use the conviction to rebut that claim. Reese was shackled during jury selection, though a cloth was draped around the counsel’s table so that the jury would not see the shackles. When the defendant objected to the shackles, the trial court told the defendant that the decision was “up to the Illinois Department of Corrections.” Ultimately, the court ordered removal of the shackles during the trial.

The jury found defendant guilty of each of the charges stated above. Defendant was sentenced to concurrent extended-term sentences of 50 years for aggravated vehicular hijacking, 30 years for vehicular invasion, 30 years for attempted armed robbery, and 14 years for escape. The trial court ordered those sentences to run consecutively to defendant’s sentence for first degree murder.

On appeal, the defendant argued that his aggravated vehicular hijacking conviction should be reversed because he did not “take” the bus within the meaning of the applicable statute. 720 ILCS 5/18-4(a)(3) (2006). Relying upon the supreme court’s decision in People v. Strickland, 154 Ill.2d 489 (1992), the majority of the Appellate Court, First District, agreed and held that the statute requires proof that the defendant actually dispossessed the vehicle from the driver. The Supreme Court granted the State leave to appeal.

Writing for the majority, Justice Kilbride noted that less than one year after the supreme court issued its decision in Strickland—which held that robbery is complete when force or threat of force causes the victim to part with possession or custody or property against his will—the legislature amended the robbery statute to exclude motor vehicles from its scope. Because the offense of vehicular hijacking was not derived from the common law, which focused on the force or intimidation used in taking property against a person’s will, but was instead newly enacted in 1993, the majority found the Strickland analysis to be inapposite. The majority believed that beyond the concerns about force and intimidation that are central to the statute proscribing robbery, the legislature in enacting the vehicular hijacking statute was additionally concerned about the great risk of harm that occurs when a victim remains in the vehicle with the assailant during the offense.

While the majority believed that the legislature, in creating the new offense of vehicular hijacking, “plainly intended to address criminal conduct distinct from robbery of a motor vehicle,” and intended to criminalize taking control of a vehicle by force or threat of force, including when the victim remains in the vehicle, Justice Burke (in dissent as to this issue) believed that the legislature’s use of language identical to that used in the robbery statute meant that the legislature intended for the vehicular hijacking statute to be construed in the same way as the robbery statute. In Justice Burke’s view, the removal of offenses related to the commandeering of a vehicle from the robbery statute and the creation of a new offense did not mean that the legislature intended to change the plain meaning of the text.

After determining the sole issue raised by the state in its appeal to the supreme court, the court addressed the issues raised by the defendant in his cross-appeal. While the shackling error was “unquestionably serious,” the court determined that the error did not contribute to the defendant’s convictions. Similarly, while the circuit court’s failure to admonish the defendant that his sentences in the instant case would run consecutively to his existing natural-life sentence for first degree murder constituted error, this was not found to prejudice the defendant’s rights. The court also found that the errors alleged by the defendant related to the state’s use of the defendant’s prior conviction did not constitute plain error.

The defendant was accorded some relief. The defendant’s conviction of vehicular invasion was vacated under the one-act/one-crime rule. Additionally, his extended-term sentences for his class 1 and class 2 felony convictions were reduced  to their maximum non-extended terms, because an extended-term sentence may be imposed only on offenses within the most serious class of felony where the offenses were, as here, committed in a single course of conduct.

In re Destiny P.

By Kerry Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender

The state filed a petition for adjudication of wardship under the Juvenile Court Act alleging that Destiny P. had committed first degree murder. The Juvenile Court Act does not permit a jury trial for first-time juvenile offenders charged with first degree murder. Nevertheless, Destiny P. sought a jury trial, arguing that her equal protection rights were violated by the absence of a jury trial right. Destiny P. noted that if convicted, she faced mandatory incarceration in the Department of Juvenile Justice until her 21st birthday without the possibility of parole for five years, similar to the mandatory incarceration requirements for habitual juvenile offenders and violent juvenile offenders, both of which are afforded the right to a jury trial. Destiny P. also raised a due process challenge. The circuit court rejected the due process argument, but agreed with the equal protection argument and granted the motion for jury trial. The state took a direct appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.

The supreme court reversed the finding that the statute was unconstitutional on equal protection grounds. More specifically, the court found that Destiny P. was not similarly situated to habitual juvenile offenders (HJO) or violent juvenile offenders (VJO). First, the court found that the purposes of the statutory provisions are different. Both the HJO and VJO statutes are recidivist statutes which have the stated purpose of protecting society from juvenile offenders who have committed “three serious offenses” (HJO) or “two serious violent offenses” (VJO). The general delinquency provisions of the Juvenile Court Act, which include the instant charge of first degree murder, have the stated purpose of being “protective in nature” with the goal being “to correct and rehabilitate, not to punish.”

The court also found that the sentencing consequences are different. The court noted that first degree murder can serve as a triggering offense for HJO or VJO proceedings, and more serious consequences would apply to an individual charged with first degree murder and tried under one of the recidivist statutes than for a first-time juvenile offender charged with first degree murder.  The first-time offender faces commitment to DOJJ until his or her 21st birthday, without the possibility of aftercare release for five years from the date of commitment. A habitual juvenile offender adjudicated delinquent of first degree murder is committed until his or her 21st birthday without the possibility of aftercare release at all and is ineligible for good conduct credit.

The court emphasized that whether it agreed with the legislature “as a matter of policy” that HJO and VJO offenders should be entitled to a jury trial was not the question. Because the HJO and VJO statutes were enacted to address a class of offenders who are “qualitatively different” from other juvenile offenders, the circuit court erred in ignoring differences and finding Destiny P. similarly situated to such offenders solely because they share a sentencing consequence of mandatory commitment to DOJJ. Thus, there was no equal protection violation.

As for Destiny P.’s due process challenge, the court quickly disposed of it by following a long line of cases holding that due process does not mandate jury trials for juveniles. That analysis was not changed simply by virtue of Destiny P.’s being charged with first degree murder instead of some other offense. While other juveniles have been granted jury trials by statute, there is no constitutional due process right to a jury trial for juveniles.

Justice Burke authored a dissent, referencing her dissent in In re Jonathon C.B., 2011 IL 107750, in which she detailed her conclusion that juveniles charged with a criminal offense that would be a felony if committed by an adult should have the right to a jury trial under Article I, section 8 of the Illinois Constitution.

Today's decision does not change the legal landscape in this area. Instead, it fits into the long line of cases holding that offenders charged under the Juvenile Court Act do not have a constitutional right to jury trial.  Where there is a jury trial right in juvenile cases, it is only where that right has been conferred by statute.

Rozsavolgyi v. City of Aurora

By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde Law Offices LLP

Before the Illinois Supreme Court on a certificate of importance from the Appellate Court, Second District, was an answer to one of three certified questions involving claims brought by a plaintiff against a municipal employer under the Illinois Human Rights Act (775 ILCS 5/1-101 et seq. (West 2014)).  That question asked whether the immunities afforded under the Local Governmental and Governmental Employees Tort Immunity Act (745 ILCS 10/1 et seq. (West 2014)) applied to Human Rights Act claims.  The other two certified questions were directed at the scope of claims permitted under the Human Rights Act.  The dissent to the appellate court opinion disagreed with all three answers.

The supreme court, in a split decision (4-3) authored by Justice Garman, refused to answer the certified question and vacated the entire appellate court judgment, holding that the appellate court erred in issuing the certificate of importance and in granting the Supreme Court Rule 308 appeal in the first instance.  A dissent, authored by Justice Burke and joined by Justices Freeman and Thomas, concluded that the court should have considered the appeal and, in any event, should not have vacated the entire appellate court decision.

Both the majority and dissenting opinions provide excellent guidance as to when appeals pursuant to Supreme Court Rules 316, 315 and 308 should be taken and the scope of review under those rules.  The majority opinion stressed the rare and exceptional circumstances under which an appellate court should issue a certificate of importance, suggesting that “an appellate court may do well to look to the factors set forth in Rule 315.”  The majority found the Rule 316 appeal was improper because the third certified question did not meet the requirements of Rule 308 – it was overbroad, there were no substantial grounds for difference of opinion, and the answer would not materially advance the case because it only affected damages, not the defendant’s liability.  Acknowledging that it could modify the certified question, the court declined to do so and, instead, emphasized the use of Rule 315 as the appropriate procedural avenue when seeking review of an appellate court’s ruling on a certified question.

The dissent opined that the third certified question was not improper and, in any event, could have been reformulated, as the court often does in the interest of judicial economy.  According to the dissent, the majority opinion showed a “fundamental misunderstanding” of Rule 316 because an appeal brought under that rule results in the court’s assumption of jurisdiction over the whole case, including the defendant’s cross-appeal (not dealt with in the court’s opinion).  The dissent also disagreed with the majority’s conclusion that review of a certified question should be sought under Rule 315, not Rule 316, noting that neither Rule 316 nor the constitution provides such a limitation.  Last, the dissent criticized the majority’s vacatur of the entire appellate court judgment, rather than the portion answering the third certified question, without any legal reason to do so.

Of interest, Justice Thomas, who joined in the dissent and would have allowed this appeal to proceed under Rule 316, previously expressed concern about Rule 316 appeals and encouraged the appellate courts to exercise “restraint, sobriety and cautious discretion” when granting certificates of importance.  Johnson v. Ames, 2016 IL 121563, ¶ 28.

Posted on October 19, 2017 by Sara Anderson

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