People v. Winters

Decision Date30 September 2020
Docket NumberNo. 2-18-0784,2-18-0784
Citation179 N.E.3d 903,449 Ill.Dec. 618,2020 IL App (2d) 180784
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of Illinois, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Stephen R. WINTERS, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtUnited States Appellate Court of Illinois

James E. Chadd and Thomas A. Lilien, of State Appellate Defender's Office, of Elgin (Richard Dvorak, of Dvorak Law Offices, LLC, of Willowbrook, of counsel), for appellant.

Marilyn Hite Ross, State's Attorney, of Rockford (Patrick Delfino, Edward R. Psenicka, and Adam Trejo, of State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor's Office, of counsel), for the People.

JUSTICE BRIDGES delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion.

¶ 1 Following a bench trial, defendant, Stephen R. Winters, was convicted of vehicular hijacking ( 720 ILCS 5/18-3 (West 2016) ) and sentenced as a Class X offender (see 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-95(b) (West 2016)) to 17 years in prison. On appeal, defendant argues that his jury waiver was unknowing and involuntary, where it was made in exchange for the State's agreement to a 20-year sentencing cap. We affirm.

¶ 2 I. BACKGROUND

¶ 3 On July 19, 2017, defendant was indicted on one count of vehicular hijacking ( 720 ILCS 5/18-3 (West 2016) ). On March 29, 2018, the trial court asked defendant if he was aware that the State had made an offer of 20 years in prison in exchange for a plea of guilty. Defendant stated that he did not want to accept the offer, and it was thereafter revoked.

¶ 4 The matter was set for trial on July 17, 2018. That morning, the parties participated in a conference pursuant to Illinois Supreme Court Rule 402 (eff. July 1, 2012). Afterward, defense counsel advised the trial court that "the parties were not able to fully resolve the matter, but in exchange for a waiver of jury trial the State is agreeing to a cap of 20, and we would ask to proceed to a bench trial." After obtaining some background information from the defendant, the court and defendant engaged in the following colloquy:

"THE COURT: It is my understanding that on the charge before the Court, which is that on the 25th day of June of 2017, in the County of Winnebago and State of Illinois, Stephen Winters committed the offense of vehicular highjacking [sic ], in that the defendant knowingly took a motor vehicle, a black Chevrolet Impala, from the person or immediate presence of Steven Sanders by threatening the imminent use of force, in violation of Illinois law. Is a Class 1 felony. The sentencing range on this, because of your priors, it is a Class X sentencing range, so it's 6 to 30 years in the Department of Corrections.
Any term in the Department of Corrections also carries with it a term of mandatory supervised release or what's more commonly referred to as parole. That would be for an additional three years.
Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: You could not be placed on a term of probation or conditional discharge. You would have to be sentenced to a term within that 6 to 30-year range. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: Because there is a cap that the State has given, that means that the sentencing range of 6 to 30 years has been lowered to 6 to 20 years. So the sentencing range is no longer above 20 years, but it's up to and including 20 years. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: Have you had a chance to talk about this with your attorney?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: And do you need any additional time to speak to him?
THE DEFENDANT: No, ma'am.
THE COURT: Are you satisfied with his legal representation?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, I am.
THE COURT: And you understand that you have the absolute right to have a trial before a judge or a jury. It's your decision. Only you can make that decision.
What your counsel said today is in exchange for the cap that you are going to waive or give up your right to a trial before a jury and ask for a trial by a judge; is that correct?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: And do you know the difference between the two types of trials?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: Do you understand that once you waive or give up your right to a jury trial you can't come back tomorrow or the next day and say, I changed my mind, I want to have a jury trial after all? It is an irrevocable decision. Do you understand that?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, ma'am.
THE COURT: Have any promises been made to you in order to get you to enter into this plea or this waiver other than the cap of 20 years?
THE DEFENDANT: No, ma'am.
THE COURT: Have any threats or force been used against you?
THE DEFENDANT: No.
THE COURT: Are you entering into this jury waiver of your own free will?
THE DEFENDANT: Yes, I am.
THE COURT: Do you have any questions?
THE DEFENDANT: No, ma'am.
THE COURT: This is a waiver of jury trial and a plea of not guilty. What I would like you to do, sir, is read that out loud to me. If you have any questions, ask me about it before you sign it.
THE DEFENDANT: I hereby give up my rights to a jury trial in the case or cause listed above and ask for a jury trial by a judge without a jury. I am signing this in open court of my own free will.
THE COURT: Any questions about that?
THE DEFENDANT: No, ma'am.
THE COURT: If that's what would you like to do, you may sign that on the line marked defendant.’
(Defendant signing.)
THE COURT: [Defendant], I will accept your jury waiver as freely and voluntarily given. And I will put that in the file."

¶ 5 The matter proceeded to a bench trial and defendant was found guilty of vehicular hijacking ( 720 ILCS 5/18-3 (West 2016) ).

¶ 6 Defendant filed a motion for a new trial, which was denied. The motion did not raise any issue concerning the voluntariness of defendant's jury waiver.

¶ 7 The trial court sentenced defendant as a Class X offender (see 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-95(b) (West 2016)) to 17 years in prison.

¶ 8 This timely appeal followed.

¶ 9 II. ANALYSIS

¶ 10 Defendant argues that his jury waiver was unknowing and involuntary, where it was made in exchange for the State's agreement to a 20-year sentencing cap.

¶ 11 Before we reach the merits, we note that defendant acknowledges that he forfeited the issue by failing to raise it at trial or in a posttrial motion. See People v. Sebby , 2017 IL 119445, ¶ 48, 417 Ill.Dec. 756, 89 N.E.3d 675 ("To preserve a purported error for consideration by a reviewing court, a defendant must object to the error at trial and raise the error in a posttrial motion."). Nevertheless, defendant's forfeited claim is reviewable under a plain-error analysis. See People v. Bracey , 213 Ill. 2d 265, 270, 290 Ill.Dec. 202, 821 N.E.2d 253 (2004) ("Whether a defendant's fundamental right to a jury trial has been violated is a matter that may be considered under the plain error rule."). "We begin a plain-error analysis by determining if there was reversible error in the first instance, as [a]bsent reversible error, there can be no plain error.’ " People v. Camacho , 2018 IL App (2d) 160350, ¶ 38, 427 Ill.Dec. 341, 118 N.E.3d 542 (quoting People v. Cosby , 231 Ill. 2d 262, 273, 325 Ill.Dec. 556, 898 N.E.2d 603 (2008) ).

¶ 12 Our federal and state constitutions both guarantee a criminal defendant's right to a trial by jury. U.S. Const., amends. VI, XIV ; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, §§ 8, 13. A defendant may waive this right by knowingly and understandingly waiving it in open court. 725 ILCS 5/103-6 (West 2018) ; Bracey , 213 Ill. 2d at 269-70, 290 Ill.Dec. 202, 821 N.E.2d 253. There is no specific admonishment or advice that the court must provide before accepting a waiver. People v. Bannister , 232 Ill. 2d 52, 66, 327 Ill.Dec. 450, 902 N.E.2d 571 (2008). The effectiveness of a defendant's waiver depends on the particular facts and circumstances of each case. Id. The critical determination is whether the waiving defendant understood his case would be decided by a judge rather than a jury. Id. at 69, 327 Ill.Dec. 450, 902 N.E.2d 571. Whether a defendant knowingly waived his right to a jury trial is subject to de novo review. Bracey , 213 Ill. 2d at 270, 290 Ill.Dec. 202, 821 N.E.2d 253.

¶ 13 Defendant argues that he "cannot have been said to have voluntarily waived his right to a jury trial where, in order to receive a sentencing cap of 20 years in prison, he was required to forsake his Constitutional right to a jury trial." He contends that he "was forced to either exercise his right to a jury trial and risk a sentence of up to 30 years, or give up his right to a jury trial in exchange for a sentencing recommendation cap of 20 years." He asserts, "This, by definition, is not a free choice, absent coercion."

¶ 14 We disagree. Although not cited by either party, we find persuasive People v. Coleman , 32 Ill. App. 3d 949, 337 N.E.2d 269 (1975), and People v. Keagbine , 77 Ill. App. 3d 1039, 33 Ill.Dec. 617, 396 N.E.2d 1341 (1979).

¶ 15 In Coleman , the defendant argued on appeal that his constitutional right to a trial by jury was violated because his jury waiver was coerced by the State's assurance that, if he proceeded to a bench trial, the State would not seek the death penalty. Coleman , 32 Ill. App. 3d at 951, 337 N.E.2d 269. The First District disagreed with the defendant, stating:

"Even if the waiver was totally predicated upon the fear of a potential death sentence, we find that, in itself, is not a denial of defendant's rights. It is well established that a defendant's constitutional rights are not violated when he pleads guilty, thereby giving up the right to any trial, in order to limit the possibility of receiving the death penalty. [Citations.] We believe that the prospect of the same limitation will not invalidate a jury waiver." (Emphasis in original.) Id.

¶ 16 In Keagbine , the defendant waived his right to a jury trial and agreed to proceed to a bench trial in return for the State's agreement not to seek the death penalty on the defendant's murder charge. Keagbine , 77 Ill. App. 3d at 1041, 33 Ill.Dec. 617, 396 N.E.2d 1341. On appeal, the defendant argued that his...

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