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THE WATCHDOGS: Chicago gun seizures tops in U.S., but doubts about police hurt prosecutions

Amid a spike in shootings and murders that’s put a national spotlight on the city this year, authorities in Chicago are seizing more illegal guns than anywhere else in the country.

The Chicago Police Department says it has seized more than 5,500 illegal guns in the first nine months of this year — most of those confiscated during searches in high-crime areas on the South Side and the West Side. By comparison, the number of illegal guns seized in Chicago all last year was about 7,000 — about 583 a month, versus 611 a month this year.

But even though they’re winning seven of every 10 gun cases, Cook County prosecutors acknowledge they’re having a tougher time getting convictions.

In part, that’s because of the public’s concern over police tactics in the wake of high-profile shootings of African-Americans by police officers around the country, according to both prosecutors and defense attorneys. They say that’s caused growing skepticism among jurors about the credibility of police officers.

“It is probably more difficult to prove these gun possession cases than it has been in the past,” said Fabio Valentini, chief of the criminal prosecutions bureau for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office. “I think it makes sense that the events of the last couple of years have affected the way that jurors look at police narratives.”

From January 2013 through September 2015, nearly 5,700 illegal gun possession cases were decided in the Cook County criminal court system. About 4,100 of those cases — 72 percent — ended with convictions, the vast majority of those because the defendants pleaded guilty, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis of data from the state’s attorney’s office found.

In the other 1,600 cases, the defendants weren’t convicted of the gun charges — usually because a judge found them not guilty or ruled there was no probable cause for them to have been charged with illegal gun possession in the first place.

In nearly 600 cases, prosecutors dropped the charges, often after defense attorneys challenged evidence or the police officers’ take on what happened.

“The argument is always going to be: How did the police come to know that you were in possession?” said Keith Ahmad, Cook County’s first assistant public defender.

Under the Fourth Amendment, police are barred from conducting searches without a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity. When they arrest suspects for illegally carrying a gun — in Illinois, the charge is unlawful use of a weapon, known for short as UUW — the police accounts typically stress they came upon the gun legally.

In response, defense attorneys often argue that officers conducted illegal searches or that their stories don’t add up.

In one recent Chicago case, officers reported they’d seen a suspect place a gun on top of a garbage can in an empty lot as they approached. In another, they said they saw a bulge in the front pocket of a suspect who fled from them. Cases like those raise suspicions among defense lawyers.

“It seems like the police have been told to go out there on the South and West Sides and search everybody and find as many guns as they can,” said defense attorney William P. Murphy.

On April 26, 2013, Tyrone Butler, 35, was pulled over by a Chicago cop after hitting another car and then driving off. He briefly ran from the officer, who caught him in the 900 block of North Avers on the West Side, according to court records.

Butler — previously convicted of three felonies involving drug dealing and battery of a police officer — allegedly punched the arresting officer in the face. Two other officers helped handcuff him. Butler told them he’d drunk a pint of vodka, and a Breathalyzer test showed his blood-alcohol level was .209 percent, records show — .08 percent, or less than half what he tested at, is considered drunk driving under the law.

Tyrone Butler. Cook County sheriff’s mug shot
Tyrone Butler. Cook County sheriff’s mug shot

The next day, according to the police, a city worker found a gun in the West Side parking lot where Butler’s Buick LeSabre was towed.

Butler was charged with being an armed habitual offender, felony gun possession, aggravated battery of a police officer and misdemeanor drunken driving.

Prosecutors dropped the felony gun possession charges against Butler before the trial in September, but they kept the more serious armed habitual offender charge and the other ones.

After a two-day trial, Butler was convicted of the DUI but acquitted of the other charges because, juror Samson Asrat told the Sun-Times, he and other jurors believed officers planted the gun in Butler’s car. He said jurors were told that officers searched the Buick the day of the arrest but didn’t find a gun.

“The gun magically appeared at the tow yard a day later,” Asrat said. “Amazingly,the tow yard worker found it on the passenger side in plain view.”

Two officers gave conflicting testimony, Asrat said. One described the gun as black and the other said it was silver, according to Asrat. Tests failed to show Butler’s fingerprints were on the gun, he said.

Jurors also were shown photos of Butler that were taken soon after his arrest.

“He looked pretty beaten up,” Asrat said. “Everyone agreed not to convict him on the gun charge and resisting arrest.”

Other cases have been dismissed after defense attorneys argued the charges themselves are unconstitutional since the state began allowing the possession of licensed guns in 2013.

That was the case with Vernon Williams, a 25-year-old who was arrested on Aug. 7, 2014. After reports of a break-in at 42nd and State, security guards for the Chicago Housing Authority detained Williams and reported that he was carrying a 9mm Sig Sauer semiautomatic handgun, court records show.

Williams didn’t have a required state firearm owner’s identification card, and the gun wasn’t registered. He was charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon — a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.

But in October 2014, his public defender, arguing to have the case dismissed, said the aggravated UUW law is almost identical to one requiring gun owners to apply for a FOID card, except that the latter offense is only a misdemeanor.

Since Williams had never been convicted of a felony, prosecutors were trying to punish Williams “more harshly” than necessary “for exercising his constitutional right under the Second Amendment,” the public defender argued.

In December, prosecutors dropped the charges. Officials in the state’s attorney’s office say they’re waiting for the Illinois Supreme Court to rule on a similar case before they decide how to handle such prosecutions in the future.

“Frankly, this state makes it very easy to get a FOID card and to carry a loaded firearm,” Valentini said. “Someone who has never made any attempt to get [a card] is a potential problem and a violent crime waiting to happen.”

Police and prosecutors say that’s why they’re pursuing new strategies to win more gun convictions.

The police department is now assigning detectives to gather more evidence and track the history of guns in UUW cases so they don’t have to rely on officers’ testimony.

“It gives it the added weight of a trained investigator and treats the case like a serious crime like rape or robbery,” police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said.

The state’s attorney’s office is also taking new steps. Prosecutors are now asking grand juries to bring indictments in some gun possession cases rather than seeking approval from judges.

That’s what happened to Anthony Allen. On March 17, the 30-year-old was at a West Side bus stop when officers pulled up and asked him about a shooting nearby. The officers said he made a furtive movement toward his waist and that that gave them cause to conduct a search, according to his attorney, Robert Nemzin.

Allen — previously convicted of gun and drug possession — was charged with unlawful use of a weapon by a felon.

On April 7, a judge ruled there was no probable cause and dismissed the charges.

“I believe she anticipated that I would challenge the search,” Nemzin said.

The state’s attorney’s office kept the case alive by bringing it to a grand jury, which indicted Allen on May 1. The case is pending.

A state’s attorney’s spokeswoman wouldn’t comment on Allen’s case but said, “If there is a finding of no probable cause based on search issues, it is not unusual for us to go to a grand jury so that all facts and circumstances of the particular case can be brought forth.”

Most people convicted of illegal gun possession in Cook County get the minimum sentence of one year, the Sun-Times has reported. Felons illegally carrying firearms typically get four years, though they’re eligible for 10. Legislators have resisted calls to lengthen mandatory sentences, citing costs and a disproportionate impact on minorities.