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Another SAFE suit filed

Brian Towne
Brian Towne

Another federal lawsuit has been filed against La Salle County over the defunct SAFE unit.

In 2011, then-La Salle County State's Attorney Brian Towne formed the State's Attorney's Felony Enforcement team, saying the unit's purpose was to make drug arrests, mostly for marijuana, and seize drug money on Interstate 80. The unit was abolished after court rulings found the unit was not allowed by law.

Nehemia Mayo, 33, and Dakota L. Burt, 22, both of New Hampshire, have lodged a suit against La Salle County, Towne and unnamed SAFE officers, saying SAFE violated their rights. They are represented by the Chicago firm of Henderson Parks.

Mayo was driving Dec. 4, 2014, on Interstate 80, with Burt his passenger, when a SAFE officer pulled him over, saying he needed to have his headlights on because of bad weather. Mayo said his lights were automatically on at all times and further, state law did not require the use of lights in such weather. Rather, the officer "fabricated" the reason for the stop, really pulling over the vehicle because it had New Hampshire plates, in the view of Mayo and Burt.

A police dog was brought to the scene, but did not appear to detect drugs. One of the officers then threw a tennis ball at Mayo's car, using the dog's attention to the ball as an "alert" to search the car, according to the suit. Officers then searched the trunk and reported they found marijuana; Mayo and Burt were taken to the La Salle County Jail.

Towne allegedly "pressured" Mayo and Burt to plead guilty to lesser charges and agree to forfeit the car, cash and cellphones so as to avoid "judicial scrutiny of the illegal stops, searches and seizures being conducted by the SAFE unit," which would result if the case went forward, the suit claimed.

Mayo and Burt were unable to post the $200,000 cash they both needed to be released on bond. However, they were let go in June 2015 after an appellate court ruled SAFE was not legal.

To get around the possible objection they waited too long to file their suit, Mayo and Burt noted they did not know their rights were violated until the Illinois Supreme Court backed up the appellate ruling and declared SAFE illegal. Their charges were dropped in September 2017, after the supreme court decision.

La Salle County and Towne have not yet responded in court to the Mayo-Burt suit, but in a similar suit, they maintained, among other arguments, the plaintiff filed her suit after the statute of limitations expired. A federal judge agreed with this argument, tossing the suit March 5.

Another federal suit regarding SAFE, lodged in January, remains pending.

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