By DAN SHOMON JR.
Statewide grand juries:
At first glance, Republican Gov. Jim Edgar's decision to sign legislation authorizing statewide grand juries to prosecute some Illinois drug cases put an end to political overtones that have haunted the proposal for more than two decades. A closer look indicates politics are still a factor, and instead of being a major weapon for Atty. Gen. Roland W. Burris to haul major drug dealers into court quickly, the statewide grand juries authorized by the bill might be barely noticed for many months after the bill takes effect January 1.
Even though it gives Burris the authority to convene multi-county grand juries to prosecute drug dealers who operate in several different areas of the state. Burris has no funds exclusively dedicated to implement the new law, and if he does not get additional money, he will only be able to commit up to three of his lawyers to it. Burris also has no other money to shift to the juries because a budget crunch has already forced him to lay off some administrative and regional office employees.
Because of the uncertainties, Edgar's approval of the Statewide Grand Jury Act (HB 316, Public Act 87-466) on September 13 might eventually end up reopening the debate over one of the few most politically important issues in Illinois: how government leaders use their resources to battle illegal drug distributors. Whether they have succeeded or failed will likely linger through to the next gubernatorial campaign.
The grand juries, under the new law, will be made up of residents from a "home" county designated by the state Supreme Court and adjoining counties. Like other grand juries in state and federal courts, they have the power to hear evidence and file criminal charges against people who they think violated state rules for perjury, drug trafficking, money laundering and other criminal offenses committed during the course of a drug-related crime.
Also, the new Statewide Grand Jury Act allows the attorney general to take legal action to seize the profits of drug dealers if they are found in violation of money laundering laws, the Cannabis and Controlled Substances Tax Act or narcotics profit laws. Quoting from the new law: "These [drug] enterprises exist as a result of the allure of the profitability that cannabis and controlled substance trafficking and narcotic racketeering present. In order to weaken or eliminate these enterprises, the profit must be removed."
Statewide grand jury legislation was first introduced in the 1970s by Republican Atty. Gen. William J. Scott as another layer to the state's court system, so that prosecutors could especially fight illegal drugs and white-collar crime across county lines. Last year, for the first time, a statewide grand jury bill passed the General Assembly when it had the support of Democrat Atty. Gen. Neil F. Hartigan who was running for governor. Unlike the bill Edgar just signed into law, the Hartigan-backed bill did not have as much protection of local state's attorneys' turf. It did not assure that the attorney general would not usurp their power at the county level. It was also perceived by Republicans that Hartigan could use the measure in his campaign against Edgar. So, Gov. James R. Thompson used his amendatory veto power to expand grand jury powers. With those amendments, especially one for wiretapping, the bill died when the House and Senate disagreed on the veto.
The political situation was different this year. Although Democrat Burris has gubernatorial aspirations, the next chief executive election is not scheduled until 1994. Political considerations were still evident, however. The grand jury bill only passed by the slimmest of margins, with House Speaker Michael J. Madigan (D-30, Chicago) convincing enough Democrats to come aboard in the House to approve final Senate amendments.
Chief sponsor of the measure. Rep. Thomas Homer (D-91, Canton), explains some of the controversy over the bill: "There were some protections built into the bill that required the attorney general to obtain the express permission from any state's attorney before the grand jury can be convened in that county. The state's
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attorney has to be consulted before granting of immunity. He must also be allowed to participate in investigation and prosecution." Besides those protections for county state's attorneys, the process can only begin when Burris's office petitions the Illinois Supreme Court to call a grand jury. And he must show the need to expand a case above the county level. If that motion is approved by high court justices, they pick the circuit judge and a particular court to convene the grand jury.
Arnold Kanter, Gov. Edgar's chief legal counsel, says none of the state's attorneys he talked to objected to the bill's becoming law. Kanter also says the governor supported the measure from the beginning because he wants more ways to fight the illegal spread of narcotics. "It can serve a purpose if it's properly handled, if the attorney general's office acts as the coordinator between different jurisdictions," Kanter says.
The only major opposition to the bill after it passed the legislature and was awaiting the governor's action came from the Illinois State Bar Association and the Chicago Bar Association, the state's two largest lawyer groups. These groups said in letters to Edgar that they think the new law will result in territorial diputes between state, local and federal prosecutors. They also said it duplicates current rules since the state's attorneys already have the power to prosecute most crimes, and complex cases can be handled in the federal courts.
John Theis, a Chicago defense attorney who heads the state bar's criminal justice section, also questions whether the state's chief legal office under Burris is prepared to handle the law. "They're not really equipped to do it," Theis says. "The state is equipped to prosecute cases investigated by local police officers ..., but they have no experience in these kinds of large-scale investigations."
Kanter thinks the new law will not have a major impact on the ability to prosecute drug cases in the Chicago area, where the drug problem is pervasive. He says that the mostly Republican chief prosecutors of all Chicago-area counties cooperate often and share information on investigations. Also, by Edgar's signing the bill three years before the next gubernatorial election, the issue may be forgotten by the 1994 election. After signing the bill, Edgar admitted that he was happy to get the issue of grand juries behind him.
Another kink in any effort to use statewide grand juries is lack of funding and personnel in the Attorney General's Office. To prosecute cases. Burris will have to rely on the investigative tools of the Illinois State Police. Although he is seeking a supplemental appropriation for his fiscal year 1992 budget to fund the grand juries, the General Assembly is reluctant to augment any appropriation because of extremely tight budgets in every state agency.
It is possible that the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, which brokers federal funds for fighting crime across the state, could be an ongoing source for future funding of statewide grand juries. Burris has applied for and has a good chance of receiving $517,000 in grants from the authority to direct towards the program. These grants might not cover all costs because the new law requires Burris to reimburse the counties that host the grand juries. The attorney general is not specific about how much he needs to begin empaneling grand juries.
With immediate funding uncertain, Burris still says he will try to convene grand juries as soon as the bill becomes effective if January. He hopes to have his first indictment of a drug dealer by the summer.
The drug problem and the need for the juries to combat it is growing. In 1989, 51,662 people were arrested for drug offenses in Illinois, a 65 percent increase over 1985. The Criminal Justice Information Authority says nearly one out of every three felony defendants prosecuted in the state in 1989 was charged with a drug offense. The state's Department of Alcohol and Substance Abuse estimates 3.7 percent of people age 12 and over in Illinois — or 355,000 residents — are drug abusers.
Despite the political and fiscal uncertainties, there is some hope that grand juries will make a dent in the state's drug trade. The new law will especially aid rural and small counties, where officials lack the resources to go after major dealers. In South Carolina's first 18 months with a grand jury law, Atty. Gen. Travis Medlock says that the prosecuting panels were responsible for indictments involving 10 major drug rings and that the state recovered $1.8 million from the defendants. The seizures covered three times the cost of the $600,000 program.
If Burris does not get the funding, he says he might intensify his political attacks against the governor. Specifically he says that if he "hypothetically" were to run for governor, he could use the withholding of money to fund grand juries in his campaign effort. "Because the public is affected by the drug problem, certainly it becomes a concern for the people," Burris says. "If we are not addressing it as public officials, then it should become a campaign issue. I don't care whether you're the attorney general or the state's attorney, or if you're the governor. If you're not helping to stem the tide of not only drug crime but crime in general, this definitely could be a campaign issue."
Countering Burris, Kanter says it is up to Burris to find the money. "It should not be a political issue. The drug problem is a big problem, and there are no simple answers," Kanter says.
Burris will not speculate on how much money Illinois can capture through its statewide grand jury law, although his predecessor Hartigan had estimated $20 million. Burris hopes major dealers will be aware of the new rules that allow the state to seize their illegal profits. "We hope to bag several of them because we know they are operating," Burris says. "We hope that once they see this power's coming, they might get scared and ply their wares somewhere else."
Fighting crime is an issue that will be prominent in the gubernatorial politics of 1994. Will the new grand jury powers prove effective in Illinois and give Burris statewide campaign material in a gubernatorial campaign against Edgar?
Dan Shomon Jr. is the Illinois state Capitol bureau manager for United Press International.
14/November 1991/Illinois Issues