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800px-WashingtonWells_CTA_071230Even as the USA becomes more and more liberal when it comes to human sexuality, there are certain boundaries that are not to be crossed, such as outraging public decency as defined in the Chicago law. Indecent exposure is the nightmare waiting to happen for many commuters and park patrons. Although members of the public are generally aware that indecent exposure is socially unacceptable, they rarely comprehend the seriousness of the crime until they are experiencing it firsthand. In certain situations, this crime can become a felony with all the attendant consequences. There may be a few rare cases in which the police allow the offender to get away with a slap on the wrist, but those are not the norm. Not only do the sentencing guidelines include fines, they also make reference to long jail time.

Understanding Public Indecency Charges

The basic rules for public indecency charges are set out in 720 ILCS 5/11-30. There are a few things to note from the perspective of the defending attorney. First of all, the minimum age for criminal culpability in this context is 17 years, so age verification will be a key aspect of the defense strategy when appropriate. The conduct that falls under this law is varied, but there are a few important qualifiers and indicators of what is generally considered to be indecent exposure or public indecency in a prosecutorial context:

Chicago_police_car_horizThe mantra to let the law take its course seems like a platitude when faced with a serious criminal investigation. Each party will have their own interests and will fight to protect them. For example the prosecutor will want the defendant to come across as the worst thing that has happened to the world. On the other hand, the defending attorney will want to portray his or her client as a hapless victim or a well-meaning interventionist. The public may want their pound of flesh from the trial, including the entertainment value. However, in the cool environment of a courtroom, it is the law that takes precedence. In this article we consider the offense of obstructing justice in Chicago as described in 720 ILCS 5/31-4.

Getting in the Way of the Investigation is a Crime in Chicago

The law on obstruction of justice in Chicago is borne out of a concern that defendants and their accomplices will try to make it difficult to undertake prosecutions. They can do this in a number of ways which involve omission and commission. In the worst case scenarios, there is witness intimidation which is an altogether different and sometimes even more serious offense in Chicago. Obstruction is a felony even if it encompasses quite a wide variety of behavior. This may include false testimony, concealment of essential information, and destroying or disguising physical evidence. Typically, there are two avenues opening for charging someone for these offenses. The first one is known as information while the second is known as indictment.

Justice3Prosecutorial discretion in Chicago has always been a controversial issue particularly if the public feels that there is an element of unfair selection and victimization. One of the leading practitioners of the deferred prosecution program is the Cook Country State Attorney. This program has been in operation since 2011 but is not without its detractors. For example, it has been subjected to an evaluation by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. The grant for this research was offered by the Loyola University Chicago. The success of the program has led to its being designated as the model of good practice for the Offender Initiative Program. All these interventions are enshrined in the Illinois Statute book under 730 ILCS 5/5-6-3.3. The three major objectives of the program are as follows:

  • Increase and protect public safety
  • Ensure the best use of available resources

Audience_-_Alberti_Flea_Circus,_MerleFest_2013Child endangerment laws in Chicago have not always had the best reception given the fact they have the power to take children away from their biological parents and even throw those parents in prison. There are cases where the facts are so harrowing that even the defense attorney is moved to take more precautions than usual due to public outcry. The principles of the laws as they stand are fairly simple. First and foremost, children are recognized as vulnerable members of society who need and deserve some level of protection. The highest priority for the law enforcement agencies is the protection of the rights and interests of the child in question even if that means the breakup of the natural family. The tricky element is that the enforcement authorities are not infallible. They do make mistakes and when they do, all hell breaks loose with the public ready to pounce.

Controversial Laws with Far-Reaching Consequences for All Involved

The case may have civil, family and criminal court elements all mixed together. For example, the parent or guardian may end up as a defendant in a serious criminal case that could lead to life imprisonment in the worst cases. In sentencing, the courts are guided by the need to express public outrage at the circumstances of the case and also deter others who might be thinking of doing the same. That does not mean that the person who has been charged with a stigmatizing crime such as child endangerment loses their human rights. For example, the presumption of innocence is embedded in the law but is often broken by the media who enjoy the more sensational aspects of these cases. That is how these cases have become so terrifying that defendants often fail to mount an effective defense even if all other indications are that they are not guilty of the crime for which they have been accused.

Marijuana_jointThe possession of marijuana in Chicago straddles the thin and ambiguous line between criminality and socially risky behavior (see The Municipal Code of Chicago (MCC) 7-24-099). Some have reached the conclusion that the continued criminalization of marijuana in Chicago is against the public interest and represents a waste of precious police resources. For example the state attorney’s office in Cook County has already indicated that it will dismiss minor pot cases as part of their overhaul of the criminal justice system.

Others may wonder whether it is appropriate for a DA to have such wide discretion to the extent that they can effectively decriminalize activity that is criminalized under statute. In some ways the debate boils down to practicality and commonsense. If every single low level offense was prosecuted, the DA would never have the time to go after the big drug overloads. Moreover there is general public acceptance that there are people who use marijuana for recreational and medicinal purposes without intending to or actually causing any harm to members of the public.

A Law in Suspense

IMG_0013_CCThe rules relating to controlled substances in Chicago are found within 720 ILCS 570 or the Illinois Controlled Substances Act. Because the offense of unauthorized prescription drug possession touches on the ability to self-medicate; it has remained one of the more controversial aspects of Chicago law. Interestingly, there has been an uptick in arrests for the possession of medications that would otherwise be perfectly legal except for the important absence of a valid prescription. Unfortunately, the zeal with which these offenses are prosecuted has meant that there are some innocents who have gotten caught up in the melee.

Currently there are nearly two million US residents who abuse prescription drugs in one way or the other. In areas where there are no stringent enforcement structures, it is possible to go unnoticed despite the risk to public health. Some of the more high-profile arrests for illegal possession of prescription drugs include the conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh.

Distinguishing Legitimate from Illegal Use of Prescription Drugs

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Disorderly conduct has become the catch-all and go-to remedy for law enforcement agencies. The typical scenario is that of a police officer working on a hunch or anecdotal evidence that someone might be engaged in criminal activity. In the absence of a clear provable offense, the officer makes what is effectively a preventative arrest under the disorderly conduct law in Chicago. However, that scenario raises civil liberties issues, particularly as they relate to minorities who have historically faced much more stringent scrutiny within the criminal justice system. Frisking is a popular political tool for those who want to be tough on crime but not touch on the causes of crime. Some members of the public are just reassured by any statistical evidence that arrests are increasing even though those arrests may not necessarily mean a reduction in criminality within a given area or population.

Processing Issues and Cost-Benefit Calculations

At a time when the police are anxious to engage with communities in innovative law enforcement projects, it seems that stop and search and disorderly conduct are soon going to become anachronisms. Worse still, the abuse of those provisions in Chicago will open up the law enforcement agencies to series suits for civil rights violations. The definition of disorderly conduct is also not set in stone. That means that police discretion is playing an important role in determining whether a prosecution will take place or not. If the police are given the option to turn a blind eye to potential infringements based on their judgements, then we must also accept that an element of personal prejudice may come into play with time.

BRMHS_classroom_wall_2Questioning the Rationale and Practicality of the Current Legal Regime

The first principle of the law in the USA is equality. That may not quite square up to the enhanced sentencing regime for designated drug free zones in Chicago. The current trends owe their origins partly to the 1980s when the super-predator ethos started to take hold in the echelons of legislative assemblies. It was fashionable to be tough on crime. As a result many people are now serving ridiculously long sentences for relatively minor drug offenses. President Barack Obama has used his discretion in pardoning some of these offenders. A less shocking but equally serious manifestation of this fear of crime is called enhanced sentencing. The regime was designed to tackle those areas that were at a very high risk of becoming drug dens. In effect, people who committed drug offenses within these localities would eventually face penalties that were stiffer than those who committed crimes in the non-designated areas.

The principles of natural justice do not quite square up to these situational aggravating features given that an offender has limited control over the geography of the USA or how the authorities decide to designate drug free zones. Supporters of the regime argue that it makes sense when you consider the actual zones that are affected. These include schools and drug recovery institutions. The rationale is that the hardened criminals should not be allowed to exploit vulnerable people without serious consequences. In any case, the same principle has been used to develop aggravating features for burglary. The offender may not know that the home is occupied when he or she decides to steal from it, but the fact that it is occupied will lead to a harsher sentence. Illinois is one of the areas that has fully embraced the school zoning criteria for enhanced sentencing.

W._S._Gilbert_The_Duke_of_Plaza-Toro_BriberyChicago has never been able to quite shake off its sometimes unwarranted reputation as a corruption center in the USA. Take the case of a city insider who has been sentenced to 10 years in jail for taking bribes in a scandal that ironically involved jumping red light cameras. The appropriately named John Bills is not alone in the long list of high ranking and low ranking government officials who soon find that they are in need of an excellent criminal defense attorney. The scale of the case and the sentencing are fairly atypical. The court heart that Mr. Bills took up to $2 million in euphemistically labelled “gifts.” His services included sending large red light camera contracts to Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., a company based in Arizona.

If you are looking for the key ingredients of bribery then this case is as good as any in terms of demonstrating them. First of all you have someone in a position of authority who uses that authority to illegally secure pecuniary advantage in exchange for abusing his offices. There are elements of discriminatory and unlawful behavior which means that certain bids for tenders are never treated fairly for no other reason than the fact that they did not pay the authorizing officer a bribe. Such a crime reduces public confidence in the system and judges are particularly harsh in exercising their discretion. Of course it is possible to reduce the maximum sentence if there are mitigating factors. Some of those mitigating factors include an early confession, cooperation with the police, restitution, and examples of good public works.

The Dangers of Plea Bargaining

800px-One_US_dollar_note_0127_22Whenever another story comes in, there is shock from the legal and non-legal community. Even as the defendant desperately seeks an attorney; the prosecutor is working full-time to ensure a conviction and an exemplary sentence. The annals of embezzlement in Chicago include the relatively recent case of Caryn Benson, a former Field Museum employee who managed to embezzle up to $400,000 without getting noticed. Even as the case its case made its way through the courts, there was a lot of interest from the legal community in terms of establishing the technicalities of the crime and the responses of the court. Museums are normally places of leisure and cultural enlightenment. One would not expect large-scale and sustained thefts to be taking place there over a period of ten years.

Interestingly, Benson admitted to only half a million whereas the employer protested that the figure was closer to one million. In the event a compromise was reached on the understanding that the culprit would be spending some time in jail. The guidelines are in the range of 35-40 months, a penalty that some may consider to be harsh given the fact that the courts have handled cases of large scale corporate fraud that has led to the loss of millions. The aggravating circumstances in this case include the fact that the crime took over a long period of time and the defendant had been in a position of trust. The negotiation for a plea agreement is an interesting lesson for defense attorneys where the facts of the case indicate that a long drawn out trial may not yield the results that the prosecutor is looking for. This puts the defense at an advantage and in this case the attorney got the best possible deal for the client.

Understanding the Legal Ramifications of Embezzlement