Despite a statewide ban on concealed weapons, gun owners in one central Illinois county don't need to worry about facing charges because its top prosecutor is refusing to enforce a law he considers unconstitutional.
Illinois is the only state that still bans residents from carrying concealed guns. McLean County State's Attorney Ronald Dozier calls the law antiquated and said Wednesday that he hopes his policy against prosecuting harmless violations will send a message.
"I felt like I just wanted to make a statement to the Legislature," said Dozier, a retired judge who was appointed state's attorney in December and plans to step down in October.
And legal experts say he's completely within his rights.
As a prosecutor, Dozier has the power to decide which cases he will and won't pursue, though it was unusual to publicly announce that a whole class of offenses is off the table, American University law professor Angela Davis said.
Also rare is basing that decision on the prosecutor's own opinion that a law is invalid, she said.
"I'm not saying it's never been done, but it's certainly not common," said Davis, author of "Arbitrary Justice: The Power of the American Prosecutor."
Dozier believes many state's attorneys have privately decided not to pursue charges against people who violate some of Illinois' gun laws, such as failing to properly store a gun or allowing their state-issued Firearm Owners Identification Card to expire.
But he said he decided to tell the public about his policy — and make clear that it extends to violations of the law against carrying a concealed weapon — to encourage changes in state law.
The governor isn't pleased and suggested that Dozier abide by his oath of office.
"You have a duty to respect the law," Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, said Wednesday. "If you don't agree with the law, we have procedures where you can challenge the law properly."
But a fellow Democrat who supports legalizing concealed carry, Rep. Brandon Phelps of Harrisburg in southeast Illinois, predicted that state's attorneys in areas like his where guns are popular will now face pressure to follow Dozier's lead.
"A lot of voters in those areas, especially at town hall meetings, are going to say, 'What's your position on what the McLean County state's attorney did?'" Phelps said.
Dozier, who also served as McLean County state's attorney from 1976 to 1987, said he is not urging anyone to carry a weapon or break the law. Police in the area say they will continue to arrest people if they see violations.
But in a four-page statement Tuesday, Dozier argued that state laws on where and how people can carry guns are unconstitutional under recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
People have the right to carry a concealed gun if they aren't disruptive or threatening, he said. A trucker passing through Illinois with a pistol under his seat shouldn't face felony charges, and a widow who inherits her husband's guns shouldn't be arrested for not having a Firearm Owners Identification Card, Dozier said.
The prosecutor said his decision to drop such cases is "absolutely parallel" to President Barack Obama administration's decision not to pursue deportation of certain young illegal immigrants with strong ties to the United States.
Dozier said he would decide whether charges are appropriate by asking several questions about each case, such as whether the gun was actually displayed, whether the owner was under the influence of drugs or alcohol and whether the owner has a criminal record or gang background.
That's where prosecutorial discretion gets tricky, said Davis, the law professor. Prosecutors can't possibly pursue charges in every case, but they must make sure decisions don't wind up being based on the wrong factors, such as class or race, she said.
"Whenever there is discretion, there is the possibility of unwarranted discrimination," Davis said.
The Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence condemned Dozier's "reckless" decision. Executive Director Colleen Daley said Dozier should run for the General Assembly and work to change the law if he thinks it's unconstitutional.
But the state's attorney in southeast Illinois' Edwards County praised Dozier's announcement. While stopping short of adopting a broad policy, Mike Valentine said he is unlikely to press charges over minor violations of gun laws.
State's attorneys as a group haven't taken any position on Dozier's action or the issue of legalizing concealed carry, said Matt Jones, associate director of the state Office of the State's Attorneys Appellate Prosecutor. He said it's long been established that each county prosecutor has almost complete discretion on how to use the office's limited time and money.
"Ultimately, the check on that is the voters who can vote them out of office," Jones said.
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