Asset Forfeiture

Illinois State's Attorney Hired Own Investigators to Conduct Drug Searches and Seizures

An Illinois state's attorney hired his own investigators to pull over motorists and search for drugs. Now the state supreme court will decide if it was legal.

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Nima Taradji/Polaris/Newscom

The Illinois Supreme Court will decide later this year whether a state attorney operated outside his authority when he created a drug interdiction team that performed traffic stops and seized motorists' property under asset forfeiture laws.

LaSalle County state's attorney Brian Towne first created a State's Attorney Felony Enforcement (SAFE) team in 2011, hiring several former police officers to patrol a stretch of interstate and intercept drug traffickers. The Madison County state's attorney created a similar team in 2014.

Both of those programs, the only two that exist in the state, have been on hold since June, when an Illinois appeals court upheld lower court rulings that suppressed evidence in five criminal cases, finding that Towne's investigators did not have the authority to perform arrests.

Cara Ringland is a defendant in one of those cases. She was pulled over on Interstate 80 in 2012 when a SAFE team investigator allegedly noticed the mud flaps on the U-Haul van she was driving were out of compliance with regulations. (Ringland's attorney, Stephen Komie, said evidence produced during the initial trial showed Ringland was pulled over because the investigator thought it was suspicious for a woman to be driving a U-Haul van alone.) A search of the van revealed more than 100 pounds of marijuana and $3,300 in cash, all of which investigators seized.

"We cannot fathom how patrolling Interstate 80, issuing warning tickets, and confiscating contraband can be realistically viewed as 'conducting investigations that assist the State's Attorney with his duties,'" the court wrote. "The prosecution of drug dealers and traffickers is indisputably a duty of the State's Attorney; outfitting his own drug interdiction unit is not. Such a statutory construction would effectively give the State's Attorney the power to create and maintain the equivalent of his own police force."

Towne appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court, which will take up the case when it reconvenes this fall.

Towne and the Madison County state's attorney both argue their investigators took drugs off the street and used the would-be drug profits to make their communities safer. However, civil liberties groups say the teams are emblematic of how asset forfeiture—which allows police to seize property without having to convict, or sometimes even charge, the property owner—distorts police practices, incentivizes money-grabs, and lacks due process protections.

The one thing neither side disputes is that the LaSalle County SAFE unit was very good at hauling in drugs and cash.

Komie likened the investigators to bears in Alaska waiting for the annual salmon run. "When the kids run west to east, they're there waiting, and the plan is to catch as many as they can," he said.

Assisted by drug-sniffing dogs and officers from a local police department (which gets a cut of any forfeiture revenues), investigators seized significant amounts of marijuana, methamphetamine, and cocaine, not to mention hard cash. The News Tribune reported in 2014 that the LaSalle SAFE unit "seized $7.9 million in drugs, nearly $900,000 in cash, plus 14 vehicles and another $22,000 in gold and silver."

SAFE team interdictions led to 66 drug convictions, according to an extensive investigation by Chicago Lawyer magazine earlier this year. The investigation turned up public records detailing not just much money the La Salle SAFE team seized, but where that money went. The records revealed the SAFE team had two bank accounts—one for collecting civil asset forfeiture proceeds and the other for drug fines paid by defendants—that swelled to a total of more than $1.7 million by 2015.

The SAFE unit raked in so much money that it basically paid for itself, including the $140,000 annual salaries of the SAFE team investigators. Expenditures from the accounts also included nearly $100,000 to travel to drug law enforcement conferences and $17,000 in per diem payments to Towne and his investigators between 2011 and 2015.

Funds from drug fines were also donated to local groups, "including an adult flag football league, sports programs at a Catholic school, an adult baseball tournament, a middle school seeking funds for an eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., and a college baseball team coached by an assistant state's attorney in Towne's office, among others," Chicago Lawyer reported.

While Komie said he didn't want to wade into local politics, he said a state's attorney running the equivalent of a police force was "a violation of separation of powers."

"It's not the role of public prosecutor to run a police department, because then you have no watchdog on the police," he said.

Chicago Lawyer magazine alleges Towne's spending may have violated provisions of Illinois' Cannabis Control Act and the Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act, including a section that says: "While forfeiture may secure for state and local units of government some resources for deterring drug abuse and drug trafficking, forfeiture is not intended to be an alternative means of funding the administration of criminal justice."

Of the more than 50 civil forfeiture cases that resulted from traffic stops performed by the SAFE unit, 23 were not tied to any criminal charge, meaning the alleged "drug traffickers" were cut loose after their property was seized. In one case reviewed by Chicago Lawyer, investigators seized 11 marijuana joints and $50,000 in cash. No criminal charges were brought against the driver, who did not contest the seizure.

Ben Ruddell, an attorney for the ACLU of Illinois, said "we shouldn't be surprised to see this kind of policing for profit when our laws incentivize it."

The ACLU of Illinois and several other civil liberties groups have been pressing for reforms of the state's asset forfeiture laws. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, gave Illinois' asset forfeiture laws a D- grade for their lax protections for property owners, as well as the fact that revenue from seizures goes back into police budgets.

"This case shows that we desperately need to fix the failed forfeiture laws in Illinois," Ruddell said. "These 'SAFE units' are set up to use these unfair laws to take as much property as possible, whether or not anyone is ever charged with a crime. Once a person's property is seized, the deck is stacked against them in every way imaginable. The property then goes right back to the same officials who seized it, who are allowed use it without meaningful regulation and no accountability."

Townes did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

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  1. Ringland was pulled over because the investigator thought it was suspicious for a woman to be driving a U-Haul van alone.

    SEXIST!

    A search of the van revealed more than 100 pounds of marijuana and $3,300 in cash

    “Ah, HA!”

    1. I’m making $96 an hour working from home. I was shocked when my neighbour told me she was averaging $120 but I see how it works now. I feel so much freedom now that I’m my own boss.
      Just working on the internet for a few hours.
      This is what I do.——————- http://bit.do/GvGO0

  2. Why do I get the feeling if it’s upheld that what the State Attorney did was illegal that no will lose their job, let alone be prosecuted for breaking laws themselves.

    1. Illinois had an income tax law that was struck down in 1932–just before Herb Hoover issued an Executive Order that would have turned into an Engine of Forfeiture by “sharing” federal tax returns with the downstate rubes and hayseeds (and their auditors).

  3. “It’s not the role of public prosecutor to run a police department, because then you have no watchdog on the police,” he said.

    Yeah, imagine what that would look like.

    1. Now hold on there, if they work for him isn’t he watching them the closest way possible? And when did we ever think that a prosecutor EVER was a watchdog on the police? Jesus. Fucking. Christ.

  4. “This case shows that we desperately need to fix the failed forfeiture laws in Illinois,” Ruddell said.

    Failed? Nope, they are working exactly as planned.

  5. , hiring several former police officers to patrol a stretch of interstate and intercept drug traffickers.

    How the fuck did this get all the way to the Illinois supreme court? Shouldn’t this have been struck down by the lowest court, with all involved in orange jump suits?

    1. Cara Ringland is a defendant in one of those cases. She was pulled over on Interstate 80 in 2012 when a SAFE team investigator allegedly noticed the mud flaps on the U-Haul van she was driving were out of compliance with regulations.

      Ahh, now it’s all clear. This is just a corporate pushback from Big Mud Flap.

      1. How in the hell is a ‘woman driving a Uhaul alone’ probable cause? This case should have disappeared at the first meeting with any prosecutor of any judgement…oh, wait…

  6. Fucking thieves.

  7. And to the east, the Daley Crime family is jealous.

  8. Maybe they’ll be dueling rivals with the cops like Richelieu’s Men and the Musketeers. I can’t wait for one group to set up a drug sting and the other show up to bust it up.

    1. Oh, please. That happens all the time in movies, and it turns out just fine, as the Uptight By The Book G-Man learns to loosen up and appreciate the Freewheelin’ Justice-Seekin’ Ways of the Irascible Flatfoot.

  9. I don’t see this as a separation-of-powers violation, because prosecution has always been an executive function. Otherwise we might as well combine the prosecutor with the judge, as the French did during the Reign of Terror.

    1. The gendarmerie warned the The Red Terror enforcers to install new wiper blades on their guillotines or “heads weel roll!”

    2. So much more efficient that way. And if you add in executioner, you have the most efficient system EVAR!

  10. “Funds from drug fines were also donated to local groups, “including an adult flag football league, sports programs at a Catholic school, an adult baseball tournament, a middle school seeking funds for an eighth grade trip to Washington, D.C., and a college baseball team coached by an assistant state’s attorney in Towne’s office, among others,” Chicago Lawyer reported.”

    Nothing like buying the love of your constituents

  11. noticed the mud flaps on the U-Haul van she was driving were out of compliance with regulations

    That’s pretty creative, I must admit.

    1. I’d like to know exactly how they thought the mud flaps were non-compliant. Near as I can tell, the only legal requirement is that certain trucks have them.

    2. You’d think if someone was going to haul 100 pounds of MJ, she’d at least get the vehicle checked for compliance first. What are drug dealers coming to these days?

    3. The nipples hadn’t been properly cleaned.

  12. ‘… it was suspicious for a woman to be driving a U-Haul van alone’

    It never occurred to them she might simply be a lesbian on her way to a second date?

  13. Asset forfeiture riders by Senator John Glenn (no relation) in 1932 and Herb Hoover’s Enabling EO ramped up the Great Depression pushing EVERY BANK in These States into the ditch. George Bush’s buddy Lundgren exhumed the policy for the Crash of 1987. Then George Waffen Bush ramped up Civil Assset Forfeiture “sharing” in 2006-7 to completely turn the housing market into Hoovervilles. The looting graphs flatten out as financial edifices crumble and states plunk for repeal–as in Jan-Feb 1933. History rhymes a lot that way… you can see it in the graphs.

    1. Newsletter?

  14. “…the LaSalle SAFE unit “seized $7.9 million in drugs, nearly $900,000 in cash, plus 14 vehicles and another $22,000 in gold and silver.”

    Mission accomplished.

  15. Wow, this article uses “safe” more than the one about gender-inclusive language in reproductive health class.
    Twelve times.

  16. “Look, if it’s wrong for me to have my own private army out there taking what I think is mine then I don’t want to be right!”

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