Can courts do more to force FOID card violators to give up their guns? Cook and DuPage counties considering how following Tribune report.
Monday, February 17, 2020
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart is calling for changes in how the judicial system handles defendants with revoked gun licenses following a Tribune investigation into the ballooning backlog of people declared too dangerous to own firearms and the state’s failure to address it.
The move comes after the Tribune highlighted the story of Christopher Miller, a Joliet man who fatally shot his 18-month-old son, Colton, with a gun he should have relinquished after having his firearm owner’s identification card revoked more than a year earlier. According to a Tribune analysis, Miller was among the more than 70% of revoked FOID permit holders statewide who ignored police orders to account for their weapons.
During his 20 months on the revocation list, Miller appeared before judges in two separate counties on criminal charges and never once was asked if he complied. No one at the hearings — one in DuPage County and one in Cook County — ordered the Illinois National Guardsman to give up the multiple firearms he kept in violation of state law.
His wife even warned DuPage officials about the weapons and his FOID revocation by the Illinois State Police, but no one acted on the information. DuPage prosecutors told her to seek an order of protection if she was afraid.
Within a month of Miller’s Cook County bond hearing and shortly before he was due to stand trial in DuPage, he fatally shot their infant son and then himself during a brutal attack in his estranged wife’s Joliet home.
Under Dart’s proposal, the FOID revocation status of all defendants would be checked and shared with a judge before bond is set. In a letter to Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans after the Tribune shared its findings with Dart, the sheriff said bond court, particularly, is “ideally situated to require compliance.”
“Every day in bond court, pretrial service representatives assess an individual’s risk for fleeing and offending,” Dart’s letter reads, explaining that information on whether a defendant had a FOID card revoked and why can better inform a judge’s decisions to require compliance with gun licensing laws when setting bail. “This point in the judicial process serves as a prime opportunity.”
Through a spokesperson, Evans said that his staff will work directly with the sheriff’s office on how to address the issue.
The Tribune has analyzed the state’s FOID card revocation system in several stories since a revoked cardholder opened fire on Feb. 15, 2019, at the Henry Pratt plant in Aurora, killing five people before he was killed in a shootout with police. Five responding police officers and an employee also were injured.
The investigation revealed that shooter Gary Martin had his FOID card revoked five years before the tragedy. He failed to turn in his weapons and no one in law enforcement followed up to make sure he did.
The Miller case was yet another tragic example of a FOID cardholder who ignored the state law and then committed an act of gun violence.
A closer look at the details of Miller’s case reveals missed opportunities inside Illinois courtrooms, the very place where a judge and prosecutors would appear to have the most leverage to get compliance.
Dart’s proposal has the support of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, whose office has access to a statewide database detailing residents who had their cards rescinded, the reason for the revocation and whether they complied with orders to account for their weapons. Currently, Cook County prosecutors look at FOID revocation status “where it is relevant to the case,” including charges that involve guns or violent crimes.
Prosecutors knew Miller was facing trial for felony battery in DuPage, but they determined his FOID status was not germane to his drug case and did not check. That would change under the sheriff’s plan.
“The state’s attorney’s office supports this proposal,” said Aviva Bowen, the officer’s director of external affairs. “Providing the judiciary with all of the relevant information regarding an offender’s background is imperative for setting a bond that protects the public while at the same time maintains the individual’s rights. We remain committed to ensuring public safety in Cook County and reviewing procedures to keep firearms out of the hands of those most likely to commit violent crimes.”
Dart’s request also has the backing of Cassandra Tanner Miller, Christopher Miller’s estranged wife who also was violently assaulted during the September 2019 attack.
“I think it’s 100% needed,” she said. “Where else are you going to have that opportunity?”
Christopher Miller was arrested in August 2019 for cocaine possession in Stickney and appeared in bond court in Bridgeview the following morning. Tanner Miller went to the courthouse for the hearing in the hopes authorities would address his continued gun possession and keep him in jail until he relinquished them.
She listened incredulously as prosecutors made no mention of his FOID revocation and his public defender talked about how Miller was a patriot who had served his country honorably in the Illinois National Guard for a decade. Miller was released on a personal recognizance bond and walked out of Cook County Jail, where a defendant’s revocation status is not part of the background check conducted prior to release.
“I was sad and disappointed. This person has done so much damage criminally on so many different levels and they didn’t care if he still had guns,” she said. “It was just another reason why the justice system is failing.”
The Aurora shooting had already prompted officials in DuPage County to examine gaps in the FOID revocation system.
The Family Violence Coordinating Council in DuPage County courts created a committee six months ago that includes police, prosecutors, domestic violence advocates, judges and court personnel, to determine how courts could more actively seek information about FOID status and bring revokees into compliance.
As a matter of long-standing practice, judges in DuPage issue an order to all felony defendants to surrender FOID cards and guns. In Miller’s case, he bonded out at a police station, which meant he was not given any orders related to his FOID card.
Addressing such a gap in the system is part of the discussions happening in DuPage now. Another idea under consideration would be giving defendants a deadline to comply with the orders.
“The Pratt shooting was a catalyst to having us think about what we are doing in this circuit to address these issues and can we do better," said DuPage County Judge Ann Celine Walsh, who chairs the council. “The courts are concerned about whether or not the orders are being followed through.”