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From 2014 to 2023, more than 3,600 unlawful use of a weapon cases in Cook County resulted from traffic stops, with 86% made by Chicago Police.

Routine traffic stops have resulted in gun charges for thousands of Chicagoans

In the midst of a partly cloudy October afternoon in 2022, Jesse Green dashed out the door of his home. Dragging luggage in one hand and clutching onto a sandwich, jacket and firearm in the other, Green hurriedly made his way to the back of his parked vehicle.

As executive director of the North Lawndale Community Coordinating Council, Green was running late for his trip to the Illinois Main Street Conference in downstate Bloomington — looking forward to furthering his knowledge in community and economic development.

He loaded his luggage into the trunk, where he usually stores his firearm whenever he travels. But in his rush, he forgot to place his gun in its case. Instead, after closing the trunk, he quickly got into the driver’s seat and dropped some of the items in his hands, including his jacket and his firearm, into the passenger seat.

Before he had made it out of the North Lawndale community, Green found himself stuck in traffic. He turned down a one-way street — in the wrong direction — to avoid the congestion and passed by a Chicago Police car, which made a quick U-turn, flashing its red and blue lights, and pulled him over.

During the traffic stop, while reaching for his license and proof of insurance, Green noticed the butt of his gun underneath his jacket in the passenger seat and informed the officer.

“Hey, I have my weapon, and it’s in the seat,” he told the officer, who then instructed Green to step out of the vehicle.

Green explained that he held a Firearm Owner’s Identification (FOID) card, but the officer told him it was against the law to have his gun sitting in the seat.

Under Illinois law, there are a few instances when valid FOID card holders may transport firearms in a vehicle. They include when firearms are taken apart and are not easily accessible, such as when they’re stored in the trunk of a car, unloaded and enclosed in a case.

Since his gun was not stored properly and Green did not have a concealed carry license, he was arrested for aggravated unlawful use of a weapon, a felony charge that could lead to one to three years in prison.

Green is among a growing number of people in Cook County who have been arrested for unlawful use of a weapon resulting from a traffic stop. The increase has emboldened civil rights advocates who have long criticized how Chicago Police use traffic stops and has renewed efforts to rename unlawful use of a weapon charges.

In 2014, about 60 unlawful use of a weapon cases stemmed from traffic stops in Cook County. In 2023, there were nearly 500 — an increase of more than 700%, according to an analysis of data from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in response to an open records request. During that 10-year span, more than 3,600 unlawful use of a weapon cases resulted from traffic stops, with 86% made by Chicago Police.

The dramatic rise in these cases have coincided with the skyrocketing number of traffic stops in Chicago. From 2014 to 2022, annual traffic stops made by Chicago Police grew from about 87,000 to more than 511,000 — an increase of nearly 500%, according to a WBEZ analysis of 42.5 million traffic stop records from more than 1,000 jurisdictions across Illinois obtained by WBEZ and the Investigative Project on Race and Equity. CPD traffic stops reached their peak in 2019, when the department made nearly 600,000 stops, the data show.

Green — who said he owned a firearm to protect himself and his family due to an alarming number of carjackings and robberies — was shocked by the name of the offense.

“There was no use of the weapon at all, no use of the weapon. So, it immediately sent me into a panic,” Green said. “I got caught up in that and the fear of what that could possibly mean for me.”

Crystal Brown, an attorney supervisor at the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, explained that “unlawful use of a weapon” is the language used in state law.

“So, it is kind of an umbrella term … but the easiest way to think about it is, it’s simple possession,” Brown said. “It’s not like I fired the gun. It’s not, I pointed the gun, you know, at someone because that’s a different type of charge.”

“I can’t tell you the number of clients that I’ve had who were like, but I have a FOID card like, I shouldn’t be here, this shouldn’t be a felony, but it is. In Illinois, you can actually be charged with a felony, even if you have a FOID card,” Brown added.

Advocates say the growing number of individuals charged with unlawful use of a weapon during traffic stops are collateral damage in an ineffective Chicago Police strategy using traffic stops to fight crime.

“These stops are for low-level violations that don’t present significant traffic safety dangers and, generally, do not require immediate law enforcement response,” Impact for Equity Policy Strategist Joi Imobhio said during a press conference outside the Chicago City Council Chambers in November 2023. “We are tired of being harassed and mistreated for driving while Black … rather than keeping our roads safe, CPD’s traffic stops harm our communities and is a huge waste of resources with no benefit to public safety.”

Free2Move coalition press conference

Members of the Free2Move Coalition held a press conference outside the Chicago City Council Chambers on Nov. 13, 2023, highlighting research on the increase of traffic stops by the Chicago Police Department.

Jessica Alvarado Gamez

Brown said the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender frequently reviews hours of police body-worn camera footage for unlawful use of a weapon cases and found a pattern of people, particularly Black and brown men, being stopped over and over again.

Brown said she observes officers frequently pulling over drivers for minor infractions such as having a large air freshener or a cracked windshield. However, she believes these reasons may not always be genuine but rather serve as a pretext for additional investigation.

“It’s not as though this is a new phenomenon that Black and brown people are being stopped in Chicago for pretextual reasons because the Chicago Police Department is just trying to get a look-see inside somebody’s car,” Brown said. “Like, these people shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place, like, this is wrong.”

Chicago Police, however, strongly deny those claims.

“Fair and constitutional policing is the foundation of the Chicago Police Department’s efforts to strengthen public safety and trust across the city,” a CPD spokesperson wrote in an email response to WBEZ when asked about the growing numbers.

“Officers only conduct traffic stops when they have probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion that a crime, including but not limited to traffic violations, has been committed, is being committed or is about to be committed,” the statement continued. “The Department is also continuously working to strengthen data collection and analysis within the Department so that we can identify patterns that help inform training and policy development.”

“A new vehicle for stop and frisk”

Advocates said CPD changed the way it carried out traffic stops around the time the department entered a Stop and Frisk Agreement with the ACLU of Illinois.

In March 2015, the ACLU of Illinois issued a report outlining the widespread use of stop and frisk in Chicago and its disproportionate impact on Black and Latino residents. The report also charged that Chicago officers regularly could not identify a constitutionally permissible reason for the stops.

In an effort to address those issues, the ACLU of Illinois entered a Stop and Frisk Agreement with Chicago Police in 2015. Under the agreement, CPD was expected to take steps to ensure department policies and practices complied with the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Illinois Civil Rights Act, which requires that government policies do not have a disparate impact based on race or ethnicity. In June 2023, the Stop and Frisk Agreement ended.

On June 27, 2023, oversight of CPD’s investigatory stop practices was added to the department’s consent decree, a negotiated settlement agreement with the Illinois Office of the Attorney General, which provides a roadmap for comprehensive reform efforts that impact every aspect of the department’s operations.

Advocates note that as CPD’s use of stop and frisk plummeted after entering the Stop and Frisk agreement, its use of traffic stops dramatically increased.

“CPD simply found a new vehicle for stop and frisk. That ain’t right,” Imobhio said.

Advocacy groups point to traffic stop data to support their assertion that CPD is engaging in pretextual stops.

“The recent spike in traffic stops, the types of violations that drivers are stopped for, and the proportion of stops that result in citation are all strong indicators that CPD is engaged in pretextual traffic stops,” reads a 2023 report from Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, or BPI, and the Free2Move Coalition. BPI, now known as Impact for Equity, is a veteran advocacy group for racial, economic and social justice. The Free2Move Coalition is an alliance of community and advocacy organizations working to create a safer and more racially equitable system of traffic safety in Chicago.

In that report, the groups highlight data showing the vast majority of traffic stops were for minor, non-moving violations and a low percentage of stops result in a citation — indicators that the traffic stops were conducted to investigate drivers without valid suspicion of criminal behavior, rather than prioritizing road safety. The groups also note the persistence of racial disparities in CPD traffic stops, like with stop and frisk in earlier years.

A WBEZ analysis of CPD traffic stops from 2020 to 2022 mirrors those findings. In 2022, 68% of CPD stops were made for non-moving violations — examples include having a malfunctioning headlight or tail light or lacking a valid and appropriately displayed registration plate or tag. That same year, just 3% of CPD traffic stops resulted in a citation. The vast majority of stops resulted in a verbal warning.

And while the number of CPD stops in 2022 bounced back close to pre-pandemic levels, officers issued far fewer citations than they did before the pandemic. There was a 74% drop in citations from 2019 to 2022.

Furthermore, between 2015 and 2022, CPD traffic stops were largely concentrated on the city’s West and South sides, disproportionately impacting Black and Latino drivers. Out of the total traffic stops made by CPD in 2022, 57% of the drivers were Black, 25% were Latino, while 13% were white.

In its email statement, Chicago Police maintain “these stops are not conducted based on race or any other protected class. Additionally, as part of our ongoing reform and consent decree compliance efforts, CPD mandates implicit bias training for all Chicago Police officers.”

And the department’s new top cop has stated publicly that CPD does not engage in pretextual traffic stops.

On Dec. 11, 2023, at a public meeting of Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability (CCPSA), Commissioner Cliff Nellis asked Chicago Police Superintendent Larry Snelling about the city’s current traffic stop policy and how it ties with tackling crime.

“You stated that your traffic policy is focused on stolen vehicles and traffic safety,” said Nellis, who is also executive director at the Lawndale Christian Legal Center. “I just wanted to clarify, does that mean that you would agree that the traffic stop policy is not a legitimate policy for removing guns from the streets?”

Snelling said there is no such CPD policy.

“So there’s nothing written that says that we have a policy for traffic stops to get guns,” the superintendent said.

“The focus … is not the traffic stop itself. The focus is on crime,” Snelling added. “So when I’m looking at someone who I know may be committing a robbery, or I have reasonable suspicion or probable cause, that’s going to be a traffic stop simply because they’re in vehicles.

“I can guarantee you this, right now, officers don’t want to go out and make an abundance of traffic stops. They want to recognize that people will [be] committing the most violent crimes, and they want to stop those people, that’s going to be the focus,” Snelling continued. “So there will be no policy that says, ‘I’m going to judge an officer’s effectiveness based on the number of traffic stops that he or she makes.’ ”

Nellis said he was encouraged by the superintendent’s response.

“I can confirm that I don’t think Superintendent Snelling believes traffic stops are an effective way to remove illegal guns from the streets,” Nellis wrote in reply to an email from WBEZ seeking his reaction to Snelling’s comments at the meeting. “It is clear to me that his leadership on this issue is a departure from past practices, and that’s certainly in the best interest of public safety and police-community relations in the city.”

Life-changing impact

For some, being pulled over by law enforcement can be a mere inconvenience, but for others it can have life-changing consequences.

In November, at a subject matter hearing of the Chicago City Council Committee on Pedestrian and Traffic Safety, 35-year-old South Side resident Kameron Huckleby said he has been stopped by CPD about 30 times in his lifetime.

Huckleby described one of those stops, on the night of Oct. 16, 2020, when he and his partner were going out to dinner. They were parked across the street from Fogo de Chão on North La Salle Drive when CPD officers approached his vehicle.

Huckleby said the officers told him he didn’t have a license plate on the front of his vehicle and then asked to see his license, insurance and registration. Huckleby gave the officers his documentation but declined their request to search his vehicle, he said. The officers conducted a search anyway and found a firearm in his partner’s purse. According to Huckleby, his partner owned the firearm and had a FOID card, but the officers thought the firearm belonged to him.

Brown, with the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, said you can still face charges if a gun is found in your vehicle even if it doesn’t belong to you.

“Possession does not mean that you own the gun,” she said. “Possession is possession, either actual possession or constructive possession.

“Let’s say the gun is found underneath the driver’s seat, okay, and you’re the driver of the car,” she said. “But the car doesn’t belong to you, the car belongs to the passenger, you will probably still be arrested and charged with possession of that gun.”

Huckleby did not have a FOID card in his possession and was arrested and charged with aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. He would spend 25 months in Cook County Jail before the case was dismissed. Huckleby said he lost employment and time with his children.

“Like we deal with this every day. It’s harassment. It’s trauma. I mean, you [get] nervous when you see the police,” Huckleby said. “It’s a very uncomfortable feeling, and we shouldn’t have to live like that.”

In Green’s case, the charges were also dropped. However, by that time, his FOID card had already been revoked, and he was unable to retrieve his firearm, he said.

“It’s just crazy how the system has designed itself to continue to put [its] foot on people’s neck,” Green said. “[Why] would you design a system that takes something away from me before … I’m convicted and found guilty?”

Green said his arrest continues to impact him as it appears in unforeseen situations, such as the loss of his Global Entry and TSA PreCheck privileges.

As a result of the traffic stop and everything that followed, Green said his view on law enforcement has shifted.

“I was a huge advocate, proponent of law enforcement, I would defend them to my family and friends and, you know, I’m ashamed of that today,” he said.

“I don’t have the trust that I used to have in law enforcement. I don’t have the trust that I used to have in our system. It has been fractured tremendously as a result of this experience.”

Chicago police car by Near North District police station

A Chicago police vehicle drives by the Near North District police station on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2024.

Jessica Alvarado Gamez

A 2020 research report by the Loyola Chicago Center for Criminal Justice shared that the majority of people arrested in Cook County for gun crimes are arrested for the illegal possession of a gun, not for committing violence against victims. Furthermore, 40% of those individuals had no prior arrests for a violent crime and 80% had no prior convictions for a violent crime.

Most people who illegally possess firearms carry the weapons for protection from crime, not because they intend to use them to commit violence, said David Olson, who co-authored the study and serves as the co-director of Loyola’s Interdisciplinary Center for Criminal Justice Research.

“If we arrest a lot of those individuals, incarcerate them, but they weren’t necessarily the people driving the violence, then we’ve punished and removed [them] from the community,” he said. “That’s potentially an ineffective use of sentencing practices, because we’re not incapacitating those individuals who may be actually driving the violence.”

“It’s an irresponsible title”

Legislative efforts are underway to address the negative perception associated with gun possession charges that result from traffic stops.

Two bills have been introduced in the Illinois General Assembly that would change the word “use” — in “unlawful use of a weapon” and several similarly named criminal offense titles — to “possession.” State Rep. Kam Buckner is sponsoring one bill in the state house, and state Sen. Javier L. Cervantes is sponsoring another bill in the state senate.

In addition, the bills propose to change “Armed Habitual Criminal” to “Persistent Unlawful Possession of a Weapon” and update references to these charges in other parts of Illinois statute. The bills also seek to require circuit court clerks and law enforcement, over the course of three years, to retroactively change the names of these offenses in their systems for individuals who’ve been previously charged and prosecuted for them.

Nellis said “unlawful use of a weapon” is misleading and fails to accurately describe the behavior that resulted in the charges. “It’s an irresponsible title, and it has to be changed,” Nellis said. “Nobody would think intuitively [that] ‘unlawful use of a weapon’ just means I don’t have a FOID card.”

Sharlyn Grace, senior policy adviser for the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender, agrees.

“It’s confusing, and it’s sort of wrongly implying that thousands of people every year are accused of using a gun in an offense when they’re actually just possessing the gun without the proper paperwork,” she said.

“What this is ultimately about is trying to clarify the names of the charges in order to make it easier for an individual to explain to an employer or a landlord, anyone who may be looking at their background, that this was not something that was necessarily done in malice,” said Matt Smith, a senior policy adviser at Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA), one of the groups supporting the bill and working to get it passed.

Advocates said previous legislative efforts have been stymied due to law enforcement officials’ concerns, but Chicago’s new top cop is on board with the proposed changes.

At a December meeting of the Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, Snelling was asked if he supported a bill changing “unlawful use of a weapon” to language reflecting unlawful possession, to which he responded “absolutely.”

“As long as we know, whatever the crime is, the crime is commensurate with whatever the person is being charged with,” Snelling said.

However, both bills would only change the titles of the charges. All definitions, penalties and other elements of the offenses would stay the same.

“Speaking from CGLA’s perspective, we would ultimately love to have some discussions around what possession entails in terms of the level of severity,” Smith said. “Changing the name is not enough, [but] we do think it is a step in the right direction to help people to serve their immediate needs.”

If you have a question about traffic stops or your own story to share, please tell us about it.

Jessica Alvarado Gamez is a Roy W. Howard Fellow for WBEZ. Follow her @AlvvJess.

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