Lawsuit accuses LaSalle policing unit of illegal activities
LaSalle County and former LaSalle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne are facing a class-action lawsuit for the alleged actions of the State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement (SAFE) unit, which the suit claims was an unauthorized police force that Towne formed that conducted illegal searches and seizures, according to a government oversight group.
The Edgar County Watchdogs (ECW) say on their Illinois Leaks website that the plaintiffs are asking for monetary, declaratory and injunctive relief. The lawsuit was filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Eastern Division on June 2.
The filing details the unit, which was created to combat drug trafficking along I-80. While state’s attorneys are able to appoint investigators, the suit argues that the SAFE unit fell far outside of Towne’s statutory authority. Following precedence established in the Illinois court case People v. Ringland, the state’s attorney can help police and assist in their efforts to address criminal activity, but doing so via highway patrols is not within the office’s purview.
According to the lawsuit, the SAFE unit used non-existent or minor traffic offences to stop suspicious vehicles, most of which were targeted due to their out-of-state license plates. The unit used drug-sniffing dogs to search for drug residue that, if found, allowed the officers to confiscate any drugs and cash in the car and arrest the driver and, at times, passengers, the suit alleges. On multiple occasions, the unit seized cash without making arrests or charging the vehicle occupants, the plaintiffs claim.
The filing details two cases of out-of-state drivers detained by the SAFE unit: Alyssa Larson and Jeffrey Straker. The following information comes from allegations in the lawsuit:
Larson’s encounter with the unit was precipitated by her mother’s encounter and arrest in October 2012. Driving on Interstate 80 in a car with out-of-state plates, Larson’s mother was pulled over by a SAFE unit officer who claimed she had been speeding. A drug-sniffing dog was brought to her car and alerted the officer, who found marijuana in the vehicle. Larson’s mother was arrested and served approximately 15 months in jail.
Larson, a Connecticut resident, flew to Illinois to collect her mother’s car and was subsequently stopped herself on I-80, after which a SAFE unit officer said she had made an unsafe lane change. Larson was told to get out of her car and not allowed to leave. A second SAFE unit officer brought a drug-sniffing dog to the car. Larson, who trains police dogs, noted that the dog brought to her car was panting and therefore unable to sniff for drugs. Further, the dog tried to take ice cream from Larson’s grandmother, who was in the passenger seat -- behavior not consistent with well-trained police dogs.
Upon learning that Larson was a police dog trainer, one of the officers tried to call off the search, but Larson said the dog had already been rewarded for signaling it had found something. Larson and her grandmother were allowed after a 25-minute stop.
In Straker case, he was also travelling on I-80 with out-of-state plates when he was stopped by SAFE unit officers, who said he was stopped for going 3 mph over the speed limit. Straker was asked to get out of his vehicle. Another SAFE unit officer led a drug-sniffing dog to Straker’s car and signaled that it smelled drugs in the car. Straker was taken to the police station, with an officer driving Straker's car there. At the station, officers found marijuana and arrested Straker, leading to a $31,000 fine. Straker had not given the unit permission to search his vehicle or drive it to the station.
The suit also alleges that the funds collected from SAFE unit seizures were not put to proper use, as monies from a civil forfeiture fund -- where the cash taken from SAFE stops was deposited -- cannot be used to fund criminal justice administration. Over the course of four years, the unit seized approximately $1.7 million from stops that did not produce charges, the lawsuit claims.
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