And this one ain’t gonna be quick despite saying only half of I really wanted to say. I’d promise a part 2, but I haven’t been very good in that regard so we’ll see.
This is yet another column that requires a number of stipulation to correctly set the stage, so let’s get them out of the way right away:
1. Not only is Aurora Police Chief Kristen Ziman one of the best there is, but, in the eight years we’ve known each other, I’ve never questioned her law enforcement intentions for a second. And that’s still the case.
2. Municipalities are under immense pressure to stop balancing their budgets on the backs of the taxpayers.
3. Contrary to conventional wisdom, when a local ticket winds up in a Kane County courtroom, the issuing municipality gets a very small portion of any fine.
4. When, as is the City of Aurora’s fate, you must send officers to four separate county court buildings to prosecute cases, it gets expensive to the tune of 100 grand of overtime a year.
5. Most Kane County municipalities have already hired private attorneys or law firms to prosecute city ordinance violations.
6. We need to get chronic drunk drivers off the street.
Though I’m not prone to slippery slope arguments, with all those stipulations issued, the City of Aurora’s push to hire a private law firm to prosecute DUI cases makes me very, very nervous. It’s not that I doubt Mayor Irvin, the Chief, or the City Council, because I don’t. It’s the language they’re using and the conflict of interest they’re missing that makes me suspect.
To wit, 9th Ward Alderman Ed Bugg said, “Nearly all municipalities are going to this,” to which my sainted mother would’ve replied, “And if all your friends wanted to jump off a cliff, would you do it too?” The fact that everybody’s doing something is never a good reason to do something. In fact, my experience has been it’s always a clear sign that you shouldn’t do it.
As I’ve also frequently pointed out, city councils love to use that argument when it means more revenue, but they never seem to employ it when means making a tax cut.
Then,Chief Ziman said this move would “save the city money and bring more money in.”
That makes me even more nervous. I understand she meant that officers would avoid all that travel and Aurora would get a bigger chunk of those hefty DUI fines, but finances should never be the first consideration when discussing anything regarding our justice system.
My favorite TV judge’s favorite saying is, “Lo barato sale caro,” or “the cheap comes out expensive.” Just ask the State of Kansas why they can’t hire enough teachers to staff their classrooms, and I’ve never heard of a happy Yugo owner.
Privatizing things isn’t always the answer, either. Just ask the Illinois Lottery Board or consider how the City of Chicago’s red light camera program turned out.
Then, just to make me sweat a little bit more, Kim DiGiovanni, the principal of the law firm that would take over those Aurora DUI prosecutions, noted that Elgin DUI arrests were up 38 percent the first year they took over their cases.
While I’m all for DUI arrests, that kind of statistically significant leap makes me downright skittish. Part of that can be attributed to DiGiovanni training officers how to better handle drunk driving arrest, but I hold Elgin police officers in the highest esteem and I can’t imagine how they could possibly have been that “off.”
The Kane County State’s Attorney’s office may have fallen greatly in my estimation as of late, but there’s still a sense that justice is served whenever you’re dealing with “The People.” Of course, those public prosecutors pay attention to their conviction rate, but the best of them tend to take things on a case-by-case basis.
Conversely, a private attorney’s performance review will consist solely of that conviction rate and the ensuing revenue stream. So some poor schmuck with a perfect driving record has one too many at the office Christmas party, and they won’t nearly get the same consideration they’d get from a KCSAO prosecutor.
But here’s what really bothers me!
DiGiovanni maintains a criminal law practice in Kane and DuPage Counties. Though her firm is barred from defending DUI cases where she’s a contract prosecutor, she’s still using her DUI defense knowledge and case experience to help municipalities make more arrests and get more convictions. Meanwhile, in cities where DiGiovanni is not a prosecutor, she uses her knowledge and experience as a DUI prosecutor to get her criminal defendants off the hook.
It’s the abject worst kind of playing both ends to the middle. It reminds me of Michael Madigan writing the Illinois property tax laws, and then reaping millions as his law firm gets their clients all sorts of exemptions.
But it gets worse!
Aurora was smart enough to bar the DiGiovanni firm from defending any criminal case in that jurisdiction, but not every municipality is that smart. So, through their DUI training and all those prosecutions, the DiGiovanni firm is consistently building relationships with the arresting officers who will be witnesses in non-DUI criminal cases.
And, as anyone who’s ever set foot in that eminently incestuous building at Route 38 and Peck Road already knows, those relationships are EVERYTHING. So, the DiGiovanni law firm defendants will enjoy an automatic leg up.
If that firm was willing to give up all criminal defense clients everywhere, I might be OK with this. You see, I like it when my prosecutors are prosecutors and my defense attorneys are defense attorneys. You can’t be both.
Again, I want to compliment Chief Ziman and the Aurora City Council for their faithful stewardship of the taxpayer buck, and I love the Chief’s notion of using those savings to start a DUI prevention program. It’s unfortunate that Aurora sits in four counties, but the critical nature of our justice system means that some things are always gonna be expensive.
And ain’t real justice worth it?
Having private attorneys prosecute misdemeanors? It’s not a perfect solution, but I can live with it. Having private attorneys prosecute DUI cases? It’s a really bad idea. Perhaps a better solution would be for the City of Aurora to assume the bulk of a KCSAO prosecutor’s salary, who would then toil in that local Aurora courtroom.
Though I fervently believe I’m spitting in the wind for the 762nd time, y’all know I’m right!
P.S. I did reach out to Ms. DiGiovanni in a number of ways only to get no response. That says quite a bit, doesn’t it?
(DH reporter Sue Sarkauskus contributed to this story in a significant way.)