CHICAGO (CN) – A class of motorists claims a police unit operated by an Illinois county state’s attorney’s office, independent from the county’s regular police force, had no authority to make traffic stops or drug arrests.
In 2011, former LaSalle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne formed a police force separate from the county’s police force called the State’s Attorney Felony Enforcement, or SAFE, unit.
SAFE officers were tasked with drug interdiction along interstate highways passing through LaSalle County, just west of Chicago, particularly along I-80, which is the fastest way to get from northern California to Chicago and the big cities of the eastern seaboard.
They arrested dozens of people, and confiscated $1.7 million from drivers before the program was suspended in 2015, according to court records.
Towne’s authority to operate an independent police force became highly controversial, as did his spending of $100,000 of the money collected by the civil forfeitures to fund his own travel to law enforcement conferences, including a $17,000 per diem award for travel expenses.
The constitutionality of the SAFE unit is currently under review by the Illinois Supreme Court, which held oral arguments in January in a case brought by Cara Ringland.
Ringland was stopped by a SAFE officer because one of her U-Haul’s mud flaps was more than 12 inches off the ground and the officer found it unusual for a woman to be driving a U-Haul alone. A drug dog found 100 pounds of marijuana packed in the back of the van.
While that decision is expected any day, Alyssa Larson and Jeffrey Straker preemptively filed a class action in Chicago federal court Friday against LaSalle County, Towne and John Doe SAFE officers, alleging Towne’s “vigilante police force” violated their civil rights.
Larson was stopped for making an unsafe lane change, a charge she denies, and says the officers let her go without even checking her license and registration after a dog sniffed her vehicle without her permission.
As a police dog trainer by profession, Larson also claims the drug dog was not well trained, as it attempted to steal ice cream from her grandmother in the passenger seat.
Straker says he was pulled over for driving 73 mph in a 70-mph zone. His car was also searched without his permission and he was fined $31,000 after a dog found marijuana in his car, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs claim that SAFE officers targeted them for having out-of-state license plates, particularly from Western states, pulled them over for minor traffic offenses, then allowed a dog to sniff the perimeter of the vehicle for drugs without probable cause.
“Police officers are not allowed to stop vehicles based solely on the fact that they have out-of-state license plates,” the lawsuit repeatedly says.
Larson and Straker also allege SAFE officers "confiscated money from drivers who committed no crimes and were not arrested after the SAFE unit’s traffic stops."
The complaint roots its claims in the Illinois appeals court decision currently under review by the state’s high court.
“Defendants’ SAFE program exceeds the scope of 55 ILCS 5/2-9005(b) per the court’s decision in People v. Ringland. The court reasoned that the State’s Attorney’s investigative role is restricted to helping police with investigation needs or providing assistance when police are unable to address criminal activity sufficiently. ‘Seeking out criminal activity by virtue of patrolling the highway is a far cry from ‘standing ready’ to assist police’ pursuant to 55 ILCS 5/2-9005(b),” the complaint states, quoting the appellate court’s opinion.
Larson and Straker – who want to represent a class of drivers with out-of-state license plates who were pulled over by SAFE officers on Illinois highways – seek damages for unreasonable search and seizure, false arrest, emotional distress, and unjust enrichment.
They are represented by Edward Wallace with Wexler Wallace in Chicago.
LaSalle County did not respond to a request for comment made outside of business hours.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.