Drivers Too Late to Sue Over ‘Vigilante’ Police Force

CHICAGO (CN) – A federal judge dismissed Monday a class action brought by drivers stopped by an Illinois prosecutor’s “vigilante” police force, ruling that the motorists should have known about their civil rights claims before the independent police unit was ruled illegal.

Last June, Alyssa Larson filed a class action in Chicago federal court against LaSalle County and its former State’s Attorney Brian Towne over Towne’s organization of a “vigilante police force” that arrested dozens of people – particularly targeting out-of-state license plates – and confiscated $1.7 million from drivers before the program was suspended in 2015.

Towne formed the police force separate from the county’s police unit in 2011, and called it 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.

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.

In their June 2017 complaint, the class of motorists argued Towne had no authority to make traffic stops or drug arrests.

Just one month later, in a separate criminal action, the Illinois Supreme Court vacated Cara Ringland’s drug-trafficking conviction, which is based on a SAFE traffic stop, finding that the unit indeed operated illegally.

But despite the state high court’s ruling in Ringland’s case, U.S. District Judge Amy St. Eve on Monday dismissed Larson’s class action against the county over the same conduct as untimely.

“Larson’s Section 1983 claims are time-barred,” St. Eve wrote in a 12-page ruling. “SAFE’s stop, seizure, and search of Larson and the car occurred sometime in October or November 2012. Larson knew (or should have known) then that the officers lacked probable cause or justification—as she claims, she had violated no ‘traffic, city, state, or federal law[s],’ yet the officers had put her in an unmarked vehicle, leaving her grandmother in her car, and without consent took a drug-sniffing dog around and into it.”

Larson argued that she could not have known SAFE lacked authority to stop her until an Illinois appeals court ruled in Ringland’s favor in 2015.

But the judge found this claim doesn’t hold up.

“The complaint’s factual allegations affirmatively plead that Larson knew SAFE targeted out-of-staters and that her stop and search lacked suspicion or cause at the time the officers pulled her over,” St. Eve said. “Even if Ringland was Larson’s first indication that SAFE was not authorized to conduct traffic stops, the complaint does not allege that such illegitimate authorization gives rise to a constitutional injury.”

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