Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel will be a guest on WBBM news radio’s “At Issue” program on Sunday, July 30 to take part in a discussion of criminal justice reform policies being advanced by Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx – specifically, his opposition to those policies.
The radio show airs at 9:30 a.m. and again at 9:30 p.m. on 780-AM. One of the newest policies, and one that will be part of the discussion, involves the state’s attorney’s decision, beginning Aug. 1, to stop prosecuting arrests for suspended driver’s licenses that are based on financial responsibility, such as having unpaid traffic tickets.
Back in June, Weitzel penned a letter to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle protesting the policy, saying the move had little to do with criminal justice reform and more to do with a lack of proper funding for the state’s attorney’s office.
“To arrest people and book them into custody knowing that [the] state’s attorney’s office will not prosecute is – simply put – ridiculous and unethical,” Weitzel wrote in his June 16 letter.
Weitzel also called the policy – as well as an earlier decision by the state’s attorney to decline felony prosecution for retail theft offenders unless that person has 10 prior convictions – a “get out of jail card” and “only intended … to grab headlines and reduce overall crowding in jails.”
Weitzel argues the county should prioritize funding the state’s attorney’s office, so it can prosecute both criminal and traffic cases. He also has complained that the county has not sought the input of local police chiefs before changing policies related to criminal prosecution.
But Eric Sussman, a former federal prosecutor who is Foxx’s top assistant, called Weitzel’s statement “hyperbole” at best and argued that the state’s attorney was putting its resources towards prosecuting serious crimes.
“We have limited resources,” said Sussman, who added that the county had recently laid off 14 assistant state’s attorneys in response to budget constraints. “We have to put our resources in felony courtrooms dealing with violent crimes.”
Sussman also rejected the characterization of the decision to not prosecute licenses suspended for financial reasons, a misdemeanor, as a get-out-of-jail-free card. No one charged with having a suspended license goes to jail, Sussman said, and the cases are eventually dismissed when the financial obligation is fulfilled.
“All of them get dismissed on a regular basis, and the assistant [state’s attorneys] spend an inordinate amount of time being a collection agency,” Sussman said.
Weitzel complained that people who have routinely shirked paying child support, who have had their driver’s licenses suspended as a result, will be able to continue that practice as a result of the new policy.
“To take this tool away from the victims – the wives, girlfriends and children of these individuals is not a good public policy,” Weitzel wrote in June.
Sussman said that license suspensions are not a mechanism for forcing child support payments.
“[Police] not arresting them for not paying child support,” Sussman said. “That’s between the party and the Secretary of State’s Office, and we have an entire division that goes after those cases. It’s completely separate and apart from this.”
Weitzel said the policy puts police officers in the precarious position of weighing whether or not to make an arrest that won’t be prosecuted.
“With all the scrutiny law enforcement has been facing recently, do we really want to have our officers decide what crimes they will make an arrest,” Weitzel wrote, “which ones will be prosecuted and charged at a local level, or a misdemeanor or felony?”
Sussman said that police can continue to seek charges for those kinds of suspensions, though they won’t be pursued at the circuit court level, or municipalities can seek to pass ordinances to treat suspension as violations that can be dealt with locally in municipal adjudication.
Weitzel told the Landmark that Riverside is investigating whether such an ordinance is possible, but said doing that shifts the cost of prosecution to municipalities, resulting in higher legal bills for the adjudicator and in overtime costs for police officers, who must appear at such hearings.
In the meantime, driver’s license suspension for failure to pay fines remains on the books, establishing a disconnect between the law’s intent and the new policy to enforce it.
But Sussman said it’s like many other laws on the books where judgment comes into play. It’s illegal to go 56 mph in a 55 mph zone, Sussman said, yet a police officer would rarely, if ever, write a ticket for such an offense. Police use discretion already, he said, in applying the law.
“This is one exercise of discretion, between prosecuting violent crimes and [prosecuting suspended licenses],” Sussman said. “We have to make those choices.”
Weitzel, meanwhile, said he wonders where such decisions end.
“This is the slippery slope they started on with the felony retail thefts,” said Weitzel added that the state’s attorney also fails to follow state statue with respect to other felony enhancements, such as DUIs.
Weitzel said he predicts that soon the county judges will issue personal recognizance bonds in place of cash bonds for a misdemeanor and low-level, non-violent felony cases.
“It’s going down this path of, ‘What’s next?'” Weitzel said. “There’s more to come.”