People v. Collins

Decision Date03 February 2005
Docket NumberNo. 97804.,97804.
Citation214 Ill.2d 206,824 N.E.2d 262,291 Ill.Dec. 686
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Appellant, v. Gregory COLLINS, Appellee.
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

Lisa Madigan, Attorney General, Springfield, and Richard A. Devine, State's Attorney General, Chicago (Linda D. Woloshin, Assistant Attorney General, Chicago, and Renee G. Goldfarb, Alan J. Spellberg, Sheri Dietz and Annette Collins, Assistant State's Attorneys, of counsel), for the people.

Michael J. Pelletier, Deputy Defender, and Robert M. Stephenson, Assistant Appellate Defender, of the Office of the State Appellate Defender, Chicago, for appellee.

Justice FITZGERALD delivered the opinion of the court:

Following a bench trial, defendant was convicted in the circuit court of Cook County of reckless discharge of a firearm. 720 ILCS 5/24-1.5 (West 2002). The appellate court reversed defendant's conviction because it found that the State had failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. No. 1-02-2704 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). We granted the State's petition for leave to appeal (177 Ill.2d R. 315) to consider whether the evidence presented at trial demonstrated that defendant endangered the bodily safety of an individual when he fired a 9-millimeter, semiautomatic handgun numerous times into the air. For the reasons that follow, we reverse the judgment of the appellate court.


On January 1, 2002, at 1:24 a.m., Chicago police officers Svec and Dowling were patrolling the area of 58th Street and Winchester when they heard multiple guns firing an uncountable number of shots. Officer Dowling turned the car into an alley west of 58th Street and drove slowly north towards the sound of the shooting. While driving, the officers continued to hear gunshots. As the car approached 5726 South Winchester the officers observed three men standing in the backyard and the flashes of two guns being fired in the air. One man was firing a 9-millimeter, semiautomatic handgun, and the other an AK-47 rifle. A third man was also holding an AK-47, but was not firing it. Officer Dowling stopped the car at the house next door, 25 to 30 feet away from where the men stood firing the weapons.

Officers Svec and Dowling then exited their car and approached the backyard. As they walked, Officer Svec heard at least 15 more gunshots. When the officers identified themselves to the men, all three men looked in their direction and then fled into the house at 5726 South Winchester. The officers chased, and apprehended the men inside the house. Defendant, Gregory Collins, was apprehended holding a 9-millimeter, semiautomatic handgun that was loaded with 18 live rounds. After arresting the men, the officers recovered spent casings from the backyard of the home. Officer Svec testified that she observed over 60 spent casings on the ground. Officer Svec learned that defendant lived at the house, and that the other two men, Corey Brownlee and Ronald Thigpen, were defendant's neighbors. Brownlee lived nearby at 5644 South Winchester, and Thigpen next door at 5724 South Winchester. The officers also discovered two women inside defendant's house at the time of the arrests. Thigpen identified one woman as his girlfriend and the other as defendant's girlfriend. Officer Svec testified that defendant informed them that he had been "shooting off in the air" to celebrate New Year's Eve.

Defendant was indicted on two counts of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon (720 ILCS 5/24-1.6(a)(1), (a)(3)(A) (West 2002)) and two counts of reckless discharge of a weapon (720 ILCS 5/24-1.5 (West 2002)). To support the indictment, the State presented the testimony of Officer Svec. Following Officer Svec's testimony, defendant moved for a judgment of acquittal on all counts. The trial court granted defendant's motion on the two counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm and denied the motion with regard to reckless discharge of a firearm. Defendant did not testify on his own behalf and did not call any witnesses. His codefendants, Brownlee and Thigpen, both testified and denied that they had been firing weapons in the backyard. The trial court merged both counts of reckless discharge of a firearm and found defendant guilty. The trial court denied defendant's motion for a new trial and sentenced him to 24 months' probation and 3 months' home confinement.

Defendant appealed, and the appellate court reversed defendant's conviction, holding that the State failed to prove defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt because it "failed to present any evidence that the bullets fired from defendant's weapon presented a danger to an individual." No. 1-02-2704 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). We allowed the State's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill.2d R. 315.


Defendant was convicted of reckless discharge of a firearm. The applicable portion of the Criminal Code of 1901 provides:

"A person commits reckless discharge of a firearm by discharging a firearm in a reckless manner which endangers the bodily safety of an individual." 720 ILCS 5/24-1.5 (West 2002).

A plain reading of the statute reveals that the offense is two-pronged. A person commits the offense of reckless discharge of a firearm when he (1) recklessly discharges a firearm, and (2) endangers the bodily safety of an individual. Here, the parties agree that the State satisfied the first element of the offense. On January 1, 2002, defendant recklessly discharged a firearm. Defendant, however, argues that the State did not satisfy the second prong. He maintains that he did not endanger the bodily safety of an individual. He argues that endanger in the statute means "actual endangerment," and that his conduct did not rise to the level of actual endangerment. Defendant additionally maintains that the evidence presented at trial did not demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that his reckless conduct actually endangered an individual.

Turning to defendant's first argument, that his reckless act did not "endanger" the bodily safety of an individual as contemplated by the statute, defendant maintains that in order to establish "endangerment" it is not sufficient to simply present evidence that an individual was present or nearby when defendant discharged his firearm. Rather, defendant maintains that to establish endangerment the evidence must show that an individual was exposed to and in the vicinity of actual falling bullets. Put another way, defendant maintains that "might have been endangered" is not enough, but rather the State must establish that an individual was "actually endangered."

The appellate court agreed. "While the State is most likely correct that firing a weapon into the air, especially in the manner in which the defendants did here, constitutes an inherent danger to individuals present in the surrounding area, it is still incumbent upon the State to prove at trial beyond a reasonable doubt that an individual's bodily safety was actually endangered * * *." No. 1-02-2704 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23). The appellate court commented upon the absence of evidence depicting the angle or direction defendant fired the weapon and the lack of evidence concerning the force or velocity of bullets as they fall toward the ground. According to the appellate court, equally absent was evidence "concerning what type of area surrounded defendant's property," and whether the shooting occurred in a residential area. Finally, the appellate court criticized the State for "never question[ing] Officer Svec as to whether she felt that her bodily safety was endangered." Simply put, the appellate court found that there was no evidence that an individual was actually endangered by falling bullets and, thus, there was insufficient evidence to establish the offense of reckless discharge of a firearm.

In order to address this issue, we must examine the language of the statute to determine the meaning of "endangerment." Because the construction of a statute is a question of law, the standard of review is de novo. People v. Harris, 203 Ill.2d 111, 116, 271 Ill.Dec. 238, 784 N.E.2d 792 (2003)

. In construing a statute, our primary objective is to give effect to the intention of the legislature. People ex rel. Sherman v. Cryns, 203 Ill.2d 264, 279, 271 Ill.Dec. 881, 786 N.E.2d 139 (2003); People v. Glisson, 202 Ill.2d 499, 504, 270 Ill.Dec. 57, 782 N.E.2d 251 (2002). To ascertain the legislature's intent, "we may properly consider not only the language of the statute, but also the purpose and necessity for the law, and evils sought to be remedied, and goals to be achieved." Cryns, 203 Ill.2d at 280,

271 Ill.Dec. 881,

786 N.E.2d 139. Courts must first examine the words of the statute; the language of the statute is the best indication of legislative intent. Cryns, 203 Ill.2d at 279,

271 Ill.Dec. 881,

786 N.E.2d 139. Where the language is plain and unambiguous we must apply the statute without resort to further aids of statutory construction. Glisson, 202 Ill.2d at 504-05, 270 Ill.Dec. 57, 782 N.E.2d 251; People ex rel. Devine v. $30,700.00 United States Currency, 199 Ill.2d 142, 150-51, 262 Ill.Dec. 781, 766 N.E.2d 1084 (2002). Where statutory language is ambiguous, however, we may consider other extrinsic aids for construction, such as legislative history and transcripts of legislative debates, to resolve the ambiguity. People v. Whitney, 188 Ill.2d 91, 97-98, 241 Ill.Dec. 770, 720 N.E.2d 225 (1999).

The statute provides that an individual's reckless conduct must "endanger[ ]" the bodily safety of an individual. The statute does not define endanger. More importantly, the statute does not contain qualifying language such as might or actually. To endanger means "to bring into danger or peril of probable harm or loss" or "to create a dangerous situation." Webster's Third New International Dictionary 748 (1996). Thus, by its plain meaning, the term refers to a potential or...

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