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Federal push in Chicago begins to show up in new gun cases, some bypassing Cook County prosecutors

Tuesday, August 04, 2020
Chicago Tribune
by Megan Crepeau, Jason Meisner, Jeremy Gorner

Early one morning last week, a Chicago police sergeant spotted a red Pontiac stopped at an intersection in the Gresham neighborhood as traffic signals cycled from red to green and other vehicles drove around it.

The sergeant approached the Grand Prix to find Timothy Richardson asleep behind the wheel. When Richardson woke up and moved his legs to comply with commands to step out of the vehicle, a loaded Glock pistol with an extended magazine and laser sight allegedly fell to the floorboard with a clunk.

The July 28 incident was allegedly captured on the sergeant’s body camera. Richardson, 24, a twice-convicted felon who was barred from possessing firearms, was arrested and questioned by law enforcement before being charged with weapons offenses.

But it wasn’t Chicago police who interviewed Richardson — it was federal agents. And instead of being processed by the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, Richardson was charged later that day by the U.S. attorney’s office with a federal count of illegal possession of a firearm by a felon, court records show.

Timothy Richardson in a 2017 Chicago Police Department arrest photo.
Timothy Richardson in a 2017 Chicago Police Department arrest photo. (Chicago Police Department)

A suspect being charged federally in a gun case in and of itself isn’t new. But the case against Richardson is the latest example in a growing trend in which gun arrests made by Chicago police are being handled upfront by federal authorities — who ordinarily might deliberate for weeks or even months to decide whether to take a case from state prosecutors.The U.S. attorney’s office already has a gun crimes prosecution team that has embedded assistant U.S. attorneys in police districts on the South and West sides of the city to try and disrupt the cycle of violence in those neighborhoods.

 

But the effort has been stepped up significantly in recent weeks as civil unrest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis coupled with a wave of gun violence brought Chicago back into national headlines and drew the attention of the Trump administration, several law enforcement sources have told the Chicago Tribune.

The scope of the renewed federal push was being held close to the vest, but it has seemingly intensified once again as President Donald Trump recently sent more federal agents here in an expansion of what has been dubbed “Operation Legend,” which has seen leaders of the U.S. attorney’s office, the FBI and Chicago police trumpet their increased cooperation.

Gun violence has spiked this summer to levels not seen in years, claiming victims as young as 1 year old. Earlier this month a shooting outside a funeral home saw 15 people wounded — the worst mass shooting in recent Chicago memory. Some sources said an increase in the amount of federal resources paying attention to Chicago violence was likely to naturally lead to more federal prosecutions.

But the concerted push has apparently led to some confusion within the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, which has historically handled the vast majority of Chicago gun felonies.

On July 25, just two days after Trump’s Operation Legend announcement, an email sent by a high-ranking prosecutor to attorneys in the Felony Review Unit said Chicago police would be taking all gun arrests to federal agents first, giving them the right of first refusal in deciding whether to bring charges.

State prosecutors were directed to consider charging a gun case only if federal prosecutors had declined it, according to the email, which was obtained by the Tribune. They were instructed to learn from police the name of the federal agent who declined charges, then reach out to that agent to find out why.

It would have been a marked change from the practice that has been standard for years, in which police bring cases to county prosecutors first before federal partners determine where the cases ultimately land.

“We do not yet have a time frame for when this will begin, but will keep you informed as this fluid situation continues to unfold,” the email read.

But the strict policy was apparently never put into place. A statement from State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s office Tuesday said they “considered a change in how gun cases would be reviewed” but ultimately changed nothing.

“After further evaluation, we did not change our felony review procedure and continue to review all matters brought to us by CPD. Information regarding charged cases is shared with the US Attorney’s office to determine if federal offenses are appropriate,” the statement read.

Separately, Foxx has said of the federal officers’ increased presence in Chicago that “we will take help, but with skepticism, and only where it is appropriate.”

In a statement, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Chicago said their office works “directly with Chicago Police officers and federal agents to charge firearm cases quickly and efficiently.”

“With the additional resources of Operation Legend, we are striving to further enhance the effectiveness of our federal firearm prosecutions,” stated the email from Joseph Fitzpatrick.

Foxx also may have limited ability to interfere with the push, as some cases were being handled by federal authorities directly — essentially bypassing her office.

Tom Ahern, a CPD spokesman, would only say the department would be continuing its “long-standing partnership” with both Cook County and federal prosecutors on such gun cases.

The reasons to charge a defendant in federal court vary, but prosecutors generally promote it as a tool to get the city’s most violent, repeat offenders off the street instead of putting them back into the Cook County justice system. The potential penalties also are typically much tougher.

Not only does the federal charge of unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence, defendants must serve 85% of their sentence, instead of being eligible for day-for-day credit in the state system.

If a defendant has previously been convicted of three or more violent felonies, federal prosecutors can seek an enhanced, mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years behind bars, or up to life.

Defendants convicted at the federal level also may wind up serving their time in faraway states, which tough-on-crime advocates have long said can act as a deterrent in and of itself.

Gun cases charged by federal prosecutors over the past five weeks would seem to reflect the shift. Since July 1, out of 15 cases charging a felon with a firearm in U.S. District Court, eight were charged by complaint, meaning they came straight to the federal system instead of prosecutors incurring a delay by seeking an indictment, which typically occurs some time after an arrest.

On the same day Richardson was arrested, for example, federal prosecutors charged a second man, Laderek Townes, with illegal possession of a firearm stemming from a traffic stop by Chicago police on the West Side.

According to court records, officers approached a gray Ford sedan in the 4000 block of West Van Buren Street at 1:16 a.m. Tuesday because it was parked more than a foot from the curb.

 

Laderek Townes in his Chicago Police Department arrest in 2014 on the case that led to his armed habitual criminal conviction.
Laderek Townes in his Chicago Police Department arrest in 2014 on the case that led to his armed habitual criminal conviction. (Chicago Police Department)

While officers spoke to the driver, Townes, who was in the back seat, tried to kick a fanny pack under the driver’s seat, the charges alleged. After handcuffing Townes, officers found a loaded 9 mm Smith & Wesson in the pack with a bullet in the chamber.

As the officers tried to place Townes into a squad car, he allegedly “kicked off” the vehicle with his feet and head-butted an officer in an attempt to flee, the charges alleged.

As in Richardson’s case, Townes was interviewed at a Chicago police station by agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who swore out the complaint to a federal prosecutor. Townes’ criminal history includes state convictions for heroin trafficking and armed habitual criminal, the complaint stated.

Richardson, meanwhile, was convicted in Cook County in 2014 of robbery and sentenced to two years of probation, records show. In 2017, Richardson was sentenced to four years in state prison after being convicted in Cook County of unlawful possession of a weapon by a felon, records show.

The criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court stated that when Richardson was interviewed by ATF agents shortly after his arrest, Richardson acknowledged that he owned the Pontiac, but said that the gun did not belong to him.

Richardson told the agents that he’d “driven unknown individuals in his vehicle from a party” earlier that morning and that “one of those individuals may have left the firearm in the car,” the complaint stated.

County prosecutors likely will continue to handle the vast majority of Chicago gun felonies.

And it remains to be seen whether the shift toward more aggressive federal prosecution will have any impact on the so-called “revolving-door” bonds that critics including Chicago police Superintendent David Brown have pointed to as a cause of violence. Cook County officials recently have made significant efforts to reform the bond system to ensure that defendants are not kept in jail simply because they cannot afford to get out before their cases are resolved.

Richardson was released on his own recognizance after an initial hearing on his federal charge Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Young Kim, court records show. But Townes was ordered held in custody pending trial.

 


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