Not far outside Chicago’s city limits, a state attorney has been operating his own drug policing task force on questionable legal grounds since 2011. The “State Attorney’s Felony Enforcement unit” or “SAFE” has primarily been used to patrol a portion of Interstate 80 for narcotics traffickers. As is often the case in drug-related traffic stops, SAFE has used the powers granted by civil forfeiture laws to seize money and property suspected of being related to drug transactions. Vehicles that are seized by SAFE are then brought to the Spring Valley Police Department, which according to a recent court ruling, can receive 12.5% of the forfeited money and property.
Now, Illinois’ Third District Appellate Court has ruled that the existence of such a task force is not legal. Otherwise, it would essentially enable state attorneys to mobilize their own police forces, something that is clearly beyond their authority to do.
Nonetheless, this has not discouraged State Attorney Brian Towne, the creator of SAFE, from challenging the ruling. Towne claims he had the authority to create SAFE by way of Illinois statute 3-9005(b) (55 ILCS 5/3-9005(b), which allows for the creation of special investigators. But in June 2015, the appellate court ruled that SAFE overshot the scope of section 3-9005(b), making the traffic stops and arrests unlawful. The court elaborated in its ruling:
“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 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. Taken to its furthest logical conclusion, the SAFE unit would be no different than the county sheriff’s police.”
The issue will go before the Illinois Supreme Court, which should uphold the ruling and stop this policing for financial gain.
The state of Illinois received a grade of D- on IJ’s recent Policing for Profit report for its low bar to forfeit property and high percentage of revenue retained going directly to law enforcement.