Prosecution of narcotics, cannabis cases halted in Cook County during COVID-19 crisis
Prosecutors sent a letter Thursday to the Chicago Police Department, informing them that because of an Illinois State Police directive suspending lab testing of narcotics, the prosecutor’s office was left with “no good faith basis to proceed with these cases.”
Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is halting prosecutions of narcotics and cannabis cases amid the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19, according to a letter obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
First Assistant State’s Attorney Joe Magats sent a letter Thursday to First Deputy Supt. Anthony Riccio of the Chicago Police Department, telling him that because of an Illinois State Police directive suspending lab testing of narcotics, the prosecutor’s office was left with “no good faith basis to proceed with these cases.”
Narcotics and cannabis cases will be handled in two ways, according to the letter.
In all new arrests involving narcotics charges, “the case will be dismissed in bond court. [Assistant state’s attorneys] will review the file to determine whether the case is appropriate for direct indictment,” Magats wrote.
“If so, once the lab resumes the chemical testing of narcotics, [assistant state’s attorneys] will proceed with indicting the case, which includes notifying officers when they will need to testify in the grand jury,” Magats wrote.
In all narcotics cases currently pending in the preliminary hearing courts, or set to be indicted, state’s attorneys will ask that the case “be immediately added to the call and dismissed.” Those prosecutors will then review the cases that were dismissed to determine whether the case is appropriate for direct indictment.
If so, once the lab resumes the chemical testing of narcotics, state’s attorneys will proceed with indicting the case, Magats wrote.
“A direct indictment is one in which the case goes straight to trial, before an inquiry is completed, circumventing the preliminary hearing,” according to uslegal.com. “These indictments are extraordinary, powerful and are rarely used.”
Foxx’s office sent out a press release Friday afternoon that said the office will not prosecute cases of non-violent, low-level narcotics offenses “at this time and will continue to review and prioritize other charges on a case-by-case basis to make appropriate determinations in light of the public health crisis and reduced court operations and staffing.”
In a statement, Foxx said the decision is based on “an abundance of caution for the health of law enforcement and the community at large, the State’s Attorney’s Officewill not be pursuing cases which pose little to no risk to public safety at this time.”
“An outbreak of coronavirus in our police stations or the Cook County Jail would be devastating, not just for those who are arrested or in custody during this time, but for the officers, staff, and all of Cook County,” Foxx said in her statement. “Everyone deserves to be protected, especially during these uncertain times, and we are obligated to ensure all members of our community feel safe, including those behind bars.”
An Illinois State Police official said the agency “has limited the number of staff working in office facilities,” including those in the narcotics testing lab, amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“At this time, the laboratories remain open and are accepting evidence for cases involving violent crimes; however, routine submissions are requested to be held until further notice,” State Police Sgt. Delila Garcia said in an emailed statement.
The measures were put in place on Tuesday, Garcia said, and it was not immediately known when the agency’s directive would be rescinded.
Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for the Chicago Police Department, said Friday that while the state drug lab will not be conducting tests for the time being, Chicago Police officers still have access to the FBI’s and Drug Enforcement Agency’s drug testing facilities in Chicago.
Meanwhile, Chicago Police have enacted an order that will allow departmental leadership to redeploy any officer’s assignment — including those in the department’s narcotics unit — at a moment’s notice, depending on where manpower is needed.
“The order is designed to be able to scale very quickly to a more elevated posture to be able to protect public safety infrastructure,” Guglielmi said. “If we start getting more and more cases of police officers and the exposure level’s high, you’re going to have to make case-by-case decisions as to whether those officers have to be quarantined.”
The order was enacted Thursday, the same day the department announced that a detective who works out of the CPD’s Homan Square facility had tested positive for COVID-19.
Guglielmi said leaders from law enforcement agencies across the country have been in touch with each other in recent days to discuss crime-fighting strategies during a pandemic. Law enforcement operations in Detroit and New York City, Guglielmi said, have already been heavily impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.
“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ for Chicago,” Guglielmi said. “It’s a matter of ‘when.’”