Day after day, we see a shockingly similar pattern in our work as Cook County public defenders. Black and brown people in Chicago are pulled over for minor traffic violations. Police officers then use the stop as a justification to search the person’s car for weapons. If officers find a gun inside the car that is not stored properly or without the correct paperwork, that person is arrested on suspicion of a felony.
These are not cases in which someone called in a threat or alleged that a gun was brandished or fired. But the person is arrested, charged with a scary-sounding offense — unlawful use of a weapon — and classified as a violent offender.
Almost a quarter of the felony cases assigned to our office are gun possession cases like these.
These prosecutions have failed to significantly reduce the demand for guns in our city. They clog up the courts. They haven’t stopped mass shootings. And the racist pattern of selective enforcement exacerbates already terrible community relations with law enforcement.
But they do succeed in ruining the lives of our clients who are forced to pay thousands of dollars to recover an impounded car, are threatened with a potential felony conviction and prison sentence, and, if convicted, struggle to secure employment and housing because of that acquired criminal background.
While preparing to defend our clients, we view countless hours of police body camera footage and witness the blatant selective enforcement of the traffic laws. In the best-case scenario, police sit around in poor neighborhoods waiting for black and brown drivers to commit traffic violations that are rarely enforced in predominantly white neighborhoods. In the worst-case scenario, officers fabricate violations as a basis to pull people over.
After pulling over the car, officers frequently immediately ask our clients if they have an Illinois firearm owner’s identification card, or FOID, and concealed carry license, known as a CCL. When we see this on the camera footage, we ask ourselves: Why are the police assuming our client has a gun in the car given that they don’t immediately ask white people whether they have a FOID or CCL?
Often, officers say that they smell cannabis, which gives them a basis to search the car — an allegation that cannot be verified.
Many of our clients who are arrested after a traffic stop have a FOID with no criminal record and own a gun for self-protection because they live in a community that suffers from a high rate of violent crime. But they end up facing felony charges because in Illinois, you must have a CCL to carry a gun inside your car.
A recent client had a CCL for five years, and it had expired six weeks before his arrest. Another client was denied a CCL because of a relatively minor criminal charge from when he was a preteen. That client was actively appealing the administrative decision denying his CCL at the time of his arrest.
To make matters worse, a recent investigation by the nonprofit journalism organization Injustice Watch showed that Cook County prosecutors increasingly take these cases to grand juries instead of preliminary hearings in which our clients would be entitled to a defense attorney who can question the police officer regarding the basis for the stop and search.
According to the investigation, this strategy contributes to a troubling trend — more than 1,400 people with no prior felony conviction entered the criminal justice system in 2020 through gun possession prosecutions.
The horrific tragedy in Highland Park and the gun violence every day in Chicago demanded that we create effective solutions. Our office is among more than 60 organizations supporting the recommendations released in June by the Illinois Blueprint for Peace, which include building safer communities through investment that supports residents affected by gun violence, redesigning criminal processes to bring more fairness to gun charge decisions, and promoting compliance with gun laws.
It is clear to us that racist selective enforcement of gun possession laws causes fresh harm, and the laws are not even designed to address mass shootings or other forms of violence.
If Chicago’s strategy of pretextual stops and gun possession charges worked, we wouldn’t see daily reminders of our failures. Instead, gun violence continues, while we simultaneously increase the barriers to successful and safe communities by ensuring more people have criminal convictions that keep them from accessing employment, housing and educational opportunities.
We believe that we can reduce the harms of gun violence without these practices.
Margaret Armalas and Megan Tomlinson are Cook County assistant public defenders.
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