People v. Ellis

Decision Date22 February 2002
Docket NumberNo. 89649.,89649.
Citation199 Ill.2d 28,765 N.E.2d 991,262 Ill.Dec. 383
PartiesThe PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Appellant, v. Harry W. ELLIS, Appellee.
CourtIllinois Supreme Court

James E. Ryan, Attorney General, Springfield, Michael J. Waller, State's Attorney, Waukegan (Joel D. Bertocchi, Solicitor General, William L. Browers and Jay Paul Hoffmann, Assistant Attorneys General, Chicago, Norbert J. Goetten, Martin P. Moltz, Marshall M. Stevens, Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor, Elgin, of counsel), for the People.

G. Joseph Weller, Deputy Defender, Barbara R. Paschen, Assistant Defender, Office of the State Appellate Defender, Elgin, for appellee.

Justice KILBRIDE delivered the opinion of the court:

In this case we are asked to decide whether Illinois will recognize the "exculpatory no" doctrine as an exception to criminal liability for obstruction of justice pursuant to section 31-4(a) of the Criminal Code of 1961 (Code) (720 ILCS 5/31-4 (West 1996)). We answer that question in the negative.

On October 25, 1996, the Lake County State's Attorney filed an information against defendant, Harry W. Ellis, alleging attempted obstruction of justice pursuant to section 31-4(a) of the Code and unlawful display of vehicular registration pursuant to section 4-104(a) of the Illinois Vehicle Code (625 ILCS 5/4-104(a) (West 1996)). Specifically, the State alleged that defendant was operating a motor vehicle without proper registration and, when detained by a police officer, provided false information regarding his identity. The State also charged defendant with driving on a revoked license.

A jury convicted defendant of one count of attempted obstruction of justice but acquitted him of unlawful display of registration. Defendant was also convicted of driving on a revoked license. Defendant appealed, arguing that he was denied effective assistance of counsel and that the State improperly bolstered the credibility of police witnesses at trial. The appellate court did not reach the issues defendant raised and instead ruled sua sponte that defendant's conviction must be overturned under the "exculpatory no doctrine." No. 2-98-0832 (unpublished order under Supreme Court Rule 23).

We allowed the State's petition for leave to appeal. 166 Ill.2d R. 315(a). We reverse and remand.

I. BACKGROUND

Officer Tony Moran testified that he worked as a police officer in Grayslake. He testified that, on October 4, 1996, he was on patrol and noticed a car being driven with no rear registration sticker. Moran stopped the car and asked the driver for identification and proof of insurance. According to Moran, the driver claimed that he did not have his license with him, that his name was Gary Harris, and that his date of birth was September 14, 1954.

Moran returned to his car and ran a computerized background check. The background check revealed that Illinois databases contained no record of a licensed driver with that name and date of birth. When Moran returned and confronted the driver with this information, the driver suggested that Moran try checking Colorado. Similarly, a background check revealed that Colorado databases contained no record of a licensed driver with that name and date of birth. Moran again confronted the driver. The driver maintained that his name was Gary Harris, but that his date of birth was October 14, 1954. Moran still found no information in either Illinois or Colorado databases. Moran wrote on his notepad the name Gary Harris and both dates of birth that the driver had given him. Moran showed the notepad to the driver and was told that it was correct. Moran "knew [the driver] was lying * * * or obstructing a peace officer" and placed him under arrest.

Moran subsequently searched the car's glove compartment and found a driver's abstract containing the name Harry Ellis, born October 14, 1956. The abstract contained a physical description that matched that of the driver. Another background check revealed that the Illinois Secretary of State had revoked Harry Ellis' driver's license. Under Moran's questioning, the driver admitted that his name was Harry Ellis and that his date of birth was October 14, 1956.

The State also called Officer Randolph Heglund, who had arrived on the scene as backup during the second background check. His testimony corroborated Moran's.

Defendant testified on his own behalf. Defendant testified that he was stopped by Moran while driving a car belonging to a gentleman named Gary Beckman. He claimed that, when Moran asked his name, he replied "Harry Ellis." Defendant also testified to a continuing error on his Illinois driver's license abstract, misstating his birth date as October 4, 1956. He added that he never had an opportunity to explain this problem to Moran.

The defense also presented the testimony of Ricardo Javier and Lucy Ora. Javier and Ora were passengers in the car at the time of the stop. They both testified that defendant gave his correct name and date of birth to Moran.

Defendant was convicted of driving on a revoked license and attempted obstruction of justice but acquitted of unlawful display of registration. The trial court sentenced defendant to a six-month jail term. The court stayed defendant's sentence pending the successful completion of a one-year term of probation.

Defendant appealed, arguing that he was denied effective assistance of counsel and that the State improperly bolstered the credibility of police witnesses at trial. The appellate court did not reach these issues and instead ruled sua sponte that defendant's conviction must be overturned under the "exculpatory no doctrine." The appellate court found that defendant should not have been prosecuted for attempted obstruction of justice when he was the target of an officer's investigation and a truthful revelation of his name would have been tantamount to an admission of driving with a revoked license. 625 ILCS 5/6-303 (West 1996). The appellate court reasoned that, despite the absence of briefing or argument on the issue, justice required application of the doctrine to avoid a grave error of law.

We granted the State's petition for leave to appeal. 177 Ill.2d R. 315.

II. ANALYSIS

The issue of whether a defendant can rely upon the exculpatory no doctrine to escape criminal liability pursuant to section 31-4(a) of the Code is a question of law and therefore our review is de novo. Department of Public Aid ex rel. Davis v. Brewer, 183 Ill.2d 540, 554, 234 Ill.Dec. 223, 702 N.E.2d 563 (1998).

Section 31-4(a) states in pertinent part as follows:

"A person obstructs justice when, with intent to prevent the apprehension or obstruct the prosecution or defense of any person, he knowingly commits any of the following acts:
(a) * * * furnishes false information." 720 ILCS 5/31-4 (West 1996).

The exculpatory no doctrine originated in the federal courts as an exception to section 1001 of title 18 United States Code (18 U.S.C. § 1001 (1994)). This federal statute is similar to our obstructing justice statute in that it forbids utterance of a false or misleading statement. The federal doctrine essentially states that a simple denial of guilt does not fall within the scope of section 1001. The doctrine is rooted in the legislative history of section 1001 and the additional theory that exception is necessary under the fifth amendment because a truthful answer would have incriminated the declarant. T. Thomas, Annotation, 102 A.L.R. Fed. 742, 1991 WL 741720 (1991).

Most federal courts of appeals have held that the exception applies only to mere denials of criminal activity and not to affirmative misrepresentations. United States v. Chevoor, 526 F.2d 178 (1st Cir.1975); United States v. Adler, 380 F.2d 917 (2d Cir.1967); United States v. Beer, 518 F.2d 168 (5th Cir.1975); United States v. Isaacs, 493 F.2d 1124 (7th Cir.1974); United States v. Moore, 638 F.2d 1171 (9th Cir.1980); United States v. Tabor, 788 F.2d 714 (11th Cir.1986). See also United States v. North, 708 F.Supp. 364 (D.D.C. 1988).

The United States Supreme Court, however, in Brogan v. United States, 522 U.S. 398, 118 S.Ct. 805, 139 L.Ed.2d 830 (1998), rejected the doctrine's application to section 1001. Section 1001 is similar to our obstructing justice statute and provides in pertinent part as follows:

"(a) Except as otherwise provided in this section, whoever, in any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of the Government of the United States, knowingly and willfully—
(1) falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact;
(2) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation; or
(3) makes or uses any false writing or document knowing the same to contain any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry;
shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both." (Emphasis added.) 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (Supp.1996).

The Court found that recognition of any type of exception for a false statement, including a simple denial of wrongdoing, constituted a "limitation that the text [of section 1001] would not bear." Brogan, 522 U.S. at 403,118 S.Ct. at 809,139 L.Ed.2d at 837. The Court held that section 1001, by its terms, covers "`any'" false statement "`of whatever kind,'" including the use of the word "no" in response to a question. Brogan, 522 U.S. at 400,118 S.Ct. at 808,139 L.Ed.2d at 835, quoting United States v. Gonzales, 520 U.S. 1, 5, 117 S.Ct. 1032, 1035, 137 L.Ed.2d 132, 138 (1997).

The exculpatory no doctrine also has historical roots in Illinois law. Illinois courts first applied the doctrine to section 31-4(a) in People v. Brooks, 51 Ill.App.3d 800, 805, 9 Ill.Dec. 802, 367 N.E.2d 236 (1977). In Brooks, defendants were arrested following a shooting at a service station. After receiving Miranda warnings and signing waivers, defendants denied they were at the station on the date of...

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