Split IL Sup. Ct.: No quick escape for man facing 'unprecedented' criminal charges for violating licensing regs

By Dan Churney | Feb 27, 2019

Illinois Supreme Court   Vimeo livestream screenshot

SPRINGFIELD — A split Illinois Supreme Court has given the green light to downstate prosecutors to proceed with pressing a criminal case against a man charged with violating a state licensing law governing the business of timber buying, even though the court's dissenting members noted the supposed criminal charges may not exist in the state law cited by prosecutors.

In a 4-3 decision, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled the Schuyler County Circuit Court has jurisdiction to oversee the case brought by the Schuyler County State's Attorney's Office against defendant Kenin Edwards, of Pekin.

Edwards had asserted the case didn't belong in criminal court, because prosecutors alleged he had only violated business regulations, not a state criminal statute.

The Feb. 22 decision was penned by Justice Rita Garman, with concurrence from Chief Justice Lloyd Karmeier and Justices Mary Jane Theis and Robert Thomas. Justices Thomas Kilbride, Anne Burke and P. Scott Neville Jr. dissented. 

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Rita B. Garman   Illinoiscourts.gov

The majority ruling found Edwards needs to exhaust posttrial and appellate options before approaching the Illinois Supreme Court. The minority view said Edwards should not have been charged because the "unjust" charges don't address any proscribed behavior.

Edwards, 54, was charged in March 2016 with two misdemeanor counts of breaking the Illinois Timber Buyers Licensing Act. Specifically, Edwards was alleged to have acted as an authorized buying agent for multiple licensed timber buyers. Edwards did not have a license at the time, but later obtained one.

A jury found Edwards guilty in February 2018, but Edwards then asked the state Supreme Court to prohibit sentencing or any further action against him on grounds the Circuit Court did not have jurisdiction because he was charged with violating regulations, not committing crimes.

Edwards said he took his case to the state high court, not waiting for the outcome of his posttrial motions and skipping the appellate court process because, if he took those routes, he could be sentenced to jail and have his timber license pulled by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, depriving him of his livelihood. Irremediable harm would be inflicted if the Supreme Court didn’t step in,  Edwards said.

Garman disagreed, deciding the Circuit Court was the proper venue.

“Edwards is essentially complaining of collateral consequences that may occur pending an appeal. Were we to consider such consequences indicative of irremediable harm, then the normal appellate process would nearly always prove inadequate,” Garman wrote. “We see no reason to look past Edwards’ failure to show that he lacks any other adequate remedy and nevertheless address the merits of Edwards’ complaint. We likewise do not consider the issue presented to be important to the administration of justice."

In dissent, Kilbride concluded not only should the merits be heard, but that Edwards’ unjust guilty verdicts be tossed.

“Edwards has been convicted of an alleged regulatory offense that does not exist. In addition, his convictions are based on alleged conduct that does not violate the regulation relied on in the state’s information,” Kilbride wrote. “The majority fails to acknowledge this injustice. Instead, the majority agrees with the state that Edwards should relitigate this matter in the ordinary appellate process because he does not meet the formal requirements for prohibition relief. I cannot agree with the majority’s decision to ignore the critical error underlying Edwards’ convictions."

Kilbride went on to say the only violation under the Timber Licensing Act is buying timber without a license. However, prosecutors charged Edwards, in an “unprecedented maneuver,” with the purported offense of acting as a timber-buying agent for multiple licensed timber buyers — a regulatory violation not spelled out in the act.

In Kilbride’s view, Edwards’ guilty verdicts should be vacated. 

Edwards has been represented by the Peoria firm of Cusack, Gilfillan & O’Day.

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Cusack Gilfillan O'Day Illinois Department of Natural Resources Illinois Supreme Court Schuyler County

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