A woman embroiled in a years-long legal fight with the Cook County Forest Preserve District over the fate of a Barrington Hills horse farm she once owned has won the right – barely – to proceed with her lawsuit against the Forest Preserve District over the treatment she received when she was arrested in 2014 on a charge of trespassing as she purportedly attempted to care for horses still on the property.
On Feb. 12, U.S. District Judge Virginia M. Kendall tossed the bulk of the complaint brought by plaintiff Meryl Squires Cannon against the Forest Preserve District, the district’s legal counsel at the firm of Holland & Knight and several individual defendants associated with the district. Kendall dismissed all but one count, saying Squires Cannon allegations of conspiracy, false arrest and malicious prosecution stumbled under the weight of evidence the judge said indicated Forest Preserve District attorneys and police had probable cause to arrest and charge her with trespass.
However, Kendall said Squires Cannon could proceed with her claim against the Forest Preserve District for allegedly violating her constitutional rights against unreasonable search and seizure when police cuffed her and took her to a police station, depriving her “of her liberty and ability to move about freely,” following her arrival at the horse farm property the morning of Aug. 13, 2014, even though she purportedly was not aware she was violating any laws by being on the property.
Kendall’s decision comes as the latest step in legal battles waged since 2013 by Squires Cannon and her husband, Richard Kirk Cannon, against the Forest Preserve District over the district’s purchase of the Horizon Farms property.
The 397-acre ranch located on Algonquin Road (Illinois Route 62) in the suburb of Barrington Hills, near Cook County’s far northwest borders with Kane, McHenry and Lake counties, had formerly been owned by the Cannons. However, the property lapsed into foreclosure, and the Forest Preserve District moved to acquire it in June 2013.
A Cook County judge signed off on the purchase, and the district completed the purchase in May 2014, paying about $14 million.
The Cannons and others filed suit, challenging the legality of the purchase, saying state law doesn’t allow such Forest Preserve Districts to insert themselves into “private foreclosure litigation.” A Cook County judge rejected those arguments, and a state appeals court also sided with the district in May 2015.
However, as the foreclosure action and related legal challenge to the district’s purchase played out in court, Squires Cannon continued to care for horses kept at Horizon Farms, under an ongoing lease of the land by her business, Royalty Farms LLC.
However, while she had been permitted to continue to arrive each morning on the property even after the sale had been completed, on Aug. 13, 2014, she was arrested and charged with criminal trespass.
A judge later found her not guilty of the charges, and Squires Cannon then sued the Forest Preserve District, Holland & Knight and others, saying her arrest and detention were part of a conspiracy to intimidate her amid the ongoing legal tussle over the district’s acquisition of Horizon Farms. She alleged Forest Preserve Police essentially laid in wait for her to arrive, under orders from the district’s lawyers to arrest her.
In dismissing the bulk of Squires Cannon’s complaint, however, Kendall said Squires Cannon failed to demonstrate a lack of probable cause behind her arrest.
The judge noted two orders from Cook County judges giving the Forest Preserve District the power to bar her from entering the property. And, in allowing her to escape the trespass charges, another judge also rejected her request for sanctions against the district over the arrest.
“Thus, the state court has ruled a total of three times that Squires Cannon cannot enter the property and the Forest Preserve District has the right to evict her,” Kendall wrote.
The judge said those Cook County court actions should have served as sufficient notice to Squires Cannon that she could be arrested for trespass if she came to the property, and thus form a basis of probable cause for the arrest.
In dismissing the counts against Holland & Knight, however, the judge specifically noted she did not side with the law firm’s assertions it, as a private entity, could not be sued for malicious prosecution or false arrest.
She said the law firm could escape liability in this case because the police had probable cause to arrest Squires Cannon. But aside from that, the judge said the law firm could have faced litigation for the role it played in the incident, specifically for allegedly instructing police officers to arrest Squires Cannon.
Squires Cannon was represented in the action by the firm of Torshen, Slobig, Genden, Dragutinovich & Axel, of Chicago.
The Forest Preserve District and its employees were defended by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, while Holland & Knight was defended by the firm of Miller Shakman & Beem, of Chicago.