The Bar News

Quick Takes on Illinois Supreme Court Opinions Issued Thursday, May 24

The Illinois Supreme Court handed down three opinions on Thursday, May 24. The court upheld the constitutionality of the Vehicle Code’s definition of "low-speed gas bicycle" in People v. Plank, considered the application of the officer suit exception to sovereign immunity in Parmar v. Madigan, and determined whether statutory changes apply retroactively to two Freedom of Information Act requests in Perry v. Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

People v. Plank

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

John Plank’s driver’s license was revoked due to a prior DUI conviction. When an officer observed Plank operating a motorized bicycle at a speed of 26 miles per hour, he arrested Plank and charged him with driving a motor vehicle with a revoked license under 625 ILCS 6/6-303(a). By definition, the term "motor vehicle" excludes "low-speed gas bicycles."

Plank challenged the definition of low-speed gas bicycle as unconstitutionally vague in violation of the due process clause. That definition, found at 625 ILCS 5/1-140.15, provides that a low-speed gas bicycle is:

A two- or three-wheeled device with fully operable pedals and a gasoline motor of less than one horsepower, whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 miles per hour.

Plank argued that this definition only applied to drivers who weigh exactly 170 pounds and thus failed to provide persons of ordinary intelligence with a reasonable opportunity to understand what is prohibited. The supreme court disagreed, explaining that the weight component was relevant to the power of the engine. If the engine was capable of making the bicycle go more than 20 mph, while transporting 170 pounds and without help from gravity or pedaling, then the bicycle was not a low-speed gas bicycle. The court concluded that the definition was not vague, and noted that it was Plank’s obligation to determine if the bicycle fit the definition before driving it, instead of assuming it was exempt.

The court also rejected Plank’s argument that police officers could not enforce the statute during a traffic stop without resorting to arbitrary considerations because an officer could not determine to what extent a gas bicycle’s speed was attributable to its engine as opposed to pedaling, incline of the roadway, or the weight of the driver. The supreme court rejected this argument, noting that an officer does not need to gather enough data to prove all elements of a crime before making an arrest. A gas bicycle traveling on a flat roadway at a speed greater than 20 miles per hour supports the conclusion that it is not exempt from the definition of motor vehicle.

The circuit court had agreed with Plank’s vagueness challenge and dismissed the charge of driving while license is revoked. Because the supreme court found that the statute was not unconstitutionally vague, it reversed the dismissal and remanded the matter to the circuit court for further proceedings.

While Plank’s constitutional challenge was unsuccessful, it remains to be determined whether the state will be able to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. While the officer did not need to establish each element of the offense in order to arrest Plank for driving while license revoked, the state will have to prove those elements to make a conviction. In that regard, it seems almost certain that the weight of the driver, whether he was pedaling, and the incline of the roadway, will remain at issue.

Parmar v. Madigan

By Karen Kies DeGrand, Donohue Brown Mathewson & Smyth LLC

The Illinois Supreme Court ruled in Parmar that the doctrine of sovereign immunity precluded the taxpayer plaintiff from proceeding with an action in the circuit court on behalf of his mother's estate against the Illinois Attorney General and the Illinois State Treasurer – and no exception to the doctrine applied in this instance. The plaintiff sought a declaration that his taxes were not due under the Illinois Estate and Generation-Skipping Transfer Tax Act (“Estate Tax Act”), 35 ILCS 405/1 et seq. (West 2014). Raising claims of due process and other violations of the Illinois and United States Constitutions, among other claims, the taxpayer challenged an amendment of the Estate Tax Act, which revived a tax and made it retroactively applicable and thus subjected his mother’s estate to tax liability. In addition to seeking a declaration that the tax applied only to the estates of persons who died on or after the effective date of the amendment or that the Estate Tax Act is unconstitutional, the taxpayer sought money damages, including a refund of money paid to the treasurer and damages (interest and “loss of use”).

The supreme court recounted the evolution of the doctrine of sovereign immunity and the “officer suit exception,” which the appellate court ruled was applicable here, and established jurisdiction in the circuit court. Not so, the supreme court held. Leetaru v. Board of Trustees, 2015 IL 117485, sets out the governing principles. Whether an action is against the state, and thus sovereign immunity applies, or asserts that a state officer’s conduct violates statutory or constitutional law or exceeds her authority, and thus falls with the exception, depends on the issues involved and the relief sought. Here, the taxpayer did not allege conduct of the state officers that exceeded their authority. The allegation of past wrongful conduct as a basis for damages was not enough to uncloak the defendants from sovereign immunity. 

The supreme court also rejected the taxpayer’s secondary arguments. The general assembly did not waive sovereign immunity in section 15 of the Estate Tax Act. In the supreme court’s view, the cited statutory language manifested an intent only to establish jurisdiction and venue for those cases that do not implicate sovereign immunity. Moreover, the taxpayer did not correctly characterize the claim as seeking a tax refund under section 13(c) of the Estate Tax Act. The taxpayer neither sought a reduction of the “state tax credit” nor limited his damage claim to a refund within the ambit of section 13(c). The taxpayer did have the option of litigating under the Protest Moneys Act, 30 ILCS 23/1 et seq., and thus could not complain that he did not have a remedy. But he did not follow the procedures for paying tax under protest.

The supreme court seemed skeptical of the taxpayer’s assertion that his action was not subject to dismissal on the alternative basis of the Voluntary Payment Doctrine. Although commenting that the appellate court had too broadly construed the concept of duress that compelled the plaintiff to pay the tax, the supreme court noted that its ruling on the immunity issue made the basis for payment irrelevant.

Perry v. Department of Financial & Professional Regulation

By Joanne R. Driscoll, Forde Law Offices, LLP

In the context of actions seeking public records pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) (5 ILCS 140/11 (West 2012)), the Supreme Court clarified Illinois’s “convoluted and muddled” retroactivity jurisprudence and answered the question of what law applies when, during the pendency of a lawsuit, a change in Illinois law becomes effective.  

Following precedent in Commonwealth Edison Co. v. Will County Collector, 196 Ill. 2d 27 (2001), and Caveney v. Bower, 207 Ill. 2d 82 (2003), this unanimous decision written by Justice Garman, applied the retroactivity analysis of Landgraf v. USI Film Products, 511 U.S. 244 (1994), but only as to Landgraf’s focus on legislative intent rather than on vested versus non-vested rights.  The court explained that when legislative intent is not expressly prescribed (Landgraf’s step one analysis), section 4 of the Statute on Statutes (5 ILCS 70/4 (West 2014)), rather than step two of Landgraf (the retroactive impact inquiry), is triggered.  Under section 4, a court must consider whether the changes in law are procedural or substantive, applying the latter prospectively only.  If the legislature evinces an intent for retroactive application, the court will examine whether effectuating that intent would be constitutionally prohibited, taking into account vested rights, such as rights that are constitutionally protected.

Employing this analysis, the court examined the statutory changes at issue, 20 ILCS 2105/2105-117 (West Supp. 2015) and 225 ILCS 410/4-24 (West 2016), both of which barred disclosure of the information sought by the respective plaintiffs.  The court first determined that the legislature did not clearly prescribe its intent on retroactivity and then determined that the changes to the respective statutes were substantive in nature because they altered the scope of accessible information.  Concluding that the statutory changes should not have been applied, the court reversed both appellate court majority decisions and expressly overruled Kalven v. City of Chicago, 2014 IL App (1st) 121846, ¶ 10, upon which those decisions relied, to the extent Kalven held that “[w]hen claims are prospective, a court must apply the law that is in effect at the time of its decision.”

Posted on May 24, 2018 by Rhys Saunders

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