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Cook County judge acquitted of gun charges in courthouse incident

Cook County Judge Joseph Claps (left) leaves the Maywood Courthouse with his lawyers Todd Pugh and Thomas Breen following Claps' acquittal. | Andy Grimm for the Sun Times

Cook County Judge Joseph Claps (left) leaves the Maywood Courthouse with his lawyers Todd Pugh and Thomas Breen following Claps' acquittal. | Andy Grimm for the Sun Times

A Cook County judge on Tuesday was acquitted of misdemeanor charges for allegedly carrying a gun into the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.

Surveillance videos appear to show a handgun falling out of Judge Joseph Claps’ jacket as he walked through the lobby of the courthouse on July 3, passing within about a foot of a uniformed sheriff’s deputy as the alleged weapon drops.

But, crucially, as the judge casually picked up the purported pistol and tucked it into his pocket, he continued walking. Two deputies saw the alleged gun hit the floor, but neither stopped Claps nor took the gun from him, choosing instead to notify a supervisor.

Claps was charged two days later with carrying a firearm into a prohibited area. Only law enforcement officers on-duty are allowed to bring guns into the courthouse.

With no gun in evidence, Will County Judge Edward Burmila found the nonchalance of the sheriff’s deputies on the surveillance footage to be proof that there was no gun back in July.

“I can’t believe they would simply walk away from a firearm laying on the floor in the courthouse,” said Burmila, who was appointed to preside over the case at the Maybrook courthouse in west suburban Maywood.

Claps wiped tears from his eyes after hearing the judge’s decision following the bench trial. The 70-year-old judge, who had been reassigned to “non-judicial duties” from his courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, declined to comment as he left the Maywood courthouse.

The two sheriff’s deputies who saw the alleged gun testified Tuesday that they weren’t certain whether judges were allowed to carry firearms in the building — they don’t — and so they went to a supervisor. While both stated on the stand they were sure Claps has dropped a gun, in memos they drafted that day, they described it as “an object now known to be a gun.”

Patrice Scott, a court security officer who was about a foot away from Claps when the gun fell to the floor, testified that she saw what she believed to be a real gun, but didn’t stop the judge because she wasn’t sure the rules on firearms applied to judges.

“Honestly, I to some degree thought he was exempt, and that I had no authority to do so because he was a judge,” Scott said.

“Was it a working gun, do you know?” Claps’ lawyer, Michael Goggin asked.

“I don’t know,” Scott said.

“Do you know it was a real gun?” Goggin asked.

“It looked like a real gun,” Scott replied.

In an emailed statement, Cara Smith, Sheriff Tom Dart’s director of policy, said, “This was an exceptionally unique and unprecedented situation and our deputies that witnessed the gun fall from Judge Claps’ coat immediately reported the matter to their supervisors.”

Earlier this week, Smith said that some time elapsed because of the July 4 holiday, and as officers reviewed the video, they tried to determine whether Claps had a valid license. Claps spoke to Deputy Chief Matthew Rafferty on July 5, two days after he allegedly dropped the gun.

“The proof here is, I wanted to say sub-standard, but it is nil,” Claps lawyer, Thomas Breen said in his closing argument. “We know full well that something can look like and appear to be a gun and not be a firearm. There are replicas out there there, there are cap guns, there are water pistols, there are BB guns out there.”

Claps, who has a both Firearm Owners Identification Card and concealed carry license, faced up to six months in jail and $2,500 fine had he been convicted. The not-guilty finding does not mean Claps is completely out of the woods. The state Judicial Inquiry Board, which polices misconduct allegations against judges, still could hand down some sanction against the veteran judge.

As Breen walked out of the Maywood court house Tuesday, a reporter asked if Claps, in fact, had dropped a replica or toy gun in the lobby, at 26th and California. Breen, smiling, reached into his pocket, apparently for a prop he decided he hadn’t needed in the courtroom.

“Don’t panic,” he said, as he pulled out a silver, plastic toy pistol and let it fall to the sidewalk.