Sandra Vasquez of Aurora Illinois was operating a motor vehicle that was involved in a fatal crash that killed 5 teenagers in 2007. It was determined that Vasquez was driving under the influence (DUI).
The DUI law lists a number of aggravating factors (“aggravating” meaning facts exist that make the offense more serious than the typical case). One of those factors in aggravation is that the DUI cause a fatality. 625 ILCS 5/11-501(d)(2)(G)
Most cases of aggravated DUI are a Class-2 felony. As such, the term of incarceration is 3-7 years but probation (no jail) is an option. § 730 ILCS 5/5-4.5-35. However, when the DUI involves a fatality, it is a felony with an extended term (extra prison time) of 3-14 years if there is a single death and 6-28 years for multiple deaths, as in Vasquez’s case.
Furthermore, a fatality DUI offense is not subject to probation unless the court finds that “extraordinary circumstances” exist. Vasquez claimed extraordinary circumstances existed because she had no prior record and she worked with dementia patients.
In a criminal case, the Seventh Amendment to the United States Constitution gives the defendant (the accused) the right to a trial by jury. However, while the jury decides guilt or innocence, in Illinois, the judge determines the sentence.
The judge for Vasquez determined that extraordinary circumstances did not exist and sentenced her to 15 years in prison. Vasquez, as is her right, appealed.
The Illinois court system begins with numerous trial courts in all 102 counties of the state. Everybody has an automatic right to appeal an unfavorable ruling to one of the five appellate courts located in Chicago, Springfield, Mt. Vernon, Elgin and Ottawa.
An appeal is assigned to one of the five appellate courts depending upon which trial judge heard the case. At times, this results in conflicts among the appellate courts, all of which issue written decisions.
The next level of appeal is to the Illinois Supreme Court, of which there is only one. In only very rare circumstances does the Supreme Court agree to hear an appeal. One situation in which they are likely to do so is when the appellate courts have issued conflicting opinions.
DUI laws are always subject to constitutional attack on the basis that they are unclear, or what lawyers call “unconstitutionally vague”. What this really means is that the defendant is claiming that the rules as written are not clear and that you cannot use unclear laws against a criminally charged defendant.
Vasquez has appealed her case to the appellate court that sits in Elgin. She claims that “extraordinary circumstances” is so ill-defined as to be unconstitutionally vague.
The Springfield appellate court, in a 2009 case, previously ruled that the law was not too vague. People v. Winningham, 391 Ill. App. 3d 476, 909 N.E.2d 363, 330 Ill. Dec. 650 (4th Dist. 2009) The Mt. Vernon appellate court agreed in 2011. People v. Hill, 2012 IL App (5th) 100536 If the Elgin court disagrees, a Supreme Court appeal may be forthcoming.