I want to say right off the bat without any hesitation or equivocation whatsoever that I happen to like prosecutors and cops. I respect and honor their difficult jobs. I couldn’t do what they do, so I’m glad they’re there for me and everyone else.
But as much as I revere them, as much as I respect them, I believe they’ve had far too much power over the state legislative process.
For instance, some very well-intentioned, decent people have been trying to pass a medical marijuana bill here for years. Law enforcement always stops it dead in its tracks. Why? Well, the answers range from “We’d be sending the wrong message to children,” to “marijuana is a bad thing.” And you can forget about trying to decriminalize or, heaven forbid, legalize marijuana possession.
For crying out loud, our last three presidents smoked pot, and their lives seemed to work out OK. But imagine if one of them had been busted for possessing a joint back in college. History would’ve been changed. Pot doesn’t usually kill political careers, but pot arrests sure do.
This spring, an attempt was made to finally put some teeth into the state Constitution’s protection of victims’ rights. Prosecutors were dead set against it. When Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez testified against the constitutional amendment, she couldn’t say exactly why she opposed it except to claim that parts of it were too vague. But she also couldn’t say what could be done to make the proposed language less vague.
The fight was over the rights of victims who’ve been shunted aside by the system. The Illinois Constitution guarantees that victims have a right to be notified of court proceedings, the right to speak at sentencing, the right to know when their attacker is being released from prison and the right to have an advocate present at all court proceedings, among other things.
What the Constitution doesn’t contain, though, is any recourse if those rights are denied. They specifically can’t appeal to a higher court, for instance. So their rights can be ignored and nothing happens.
Most prosecutors treat victims well, but some don’t, and that’s just a fact of life. Supporters of the constitutional amendment produced reams of letters from victims whose rights had been ignored. But prosecutors refused to negotiate a reasonable compromise, and the proposal died.
But the coppers may have finally overstepped when they fought a proposal to decriminalize audio recording of police in public areas. Right now, if you use your iPhone to video a cop being shot at by a crack dealer, you can be charged with a felony and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The police complained that citizens would be interfering with their jobs and worried that video and audio could be altered to make them look bad. But even after those complaints were dealt with, the police still stood firm against the bill. The House took the rare step of overriding police objections and passed the legislation, but it stalled in the Senate when the cops persuaded Sen. Michael Noland (D-Elgin) to sit on it. Noland said he believed the police ought to be able to videotape citizens pretty much at will and that the House-approved proposal would create “bad law.” His eventual counterproposal was literally laughed off the Senate floor when he tried to bring it up for a vote.
Law enforcement should most definitely be listened to whenever legislators address criminal matters. But no group, no matter how important or vital, should ever have automatic legislative veto power. Opposing that bill was a big mistake, but it may finally open the door to some much-needed balance between the rights of citizens and the powers of law enforcement.