DUI Judge Richard Klaus Fired

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Judge KlausIn June, Champaign Country Associate Judge Richard Klaus was removed from his position by fellow Judges in the Sixth Judicial Circuit. This is the first time in 37 years that these judges have removed a colleague. The reason given was that attorneys and the public in the county had lost confidence in him. Indeed, the Champaign County Bar Association had urged that he not be considered for retention after observing ten years of his performance on the bench. To compound matters, County Chief Judge Difanis, a professed good friend of Klaus, had included him on the list for reconsideration even before the Bar Association had had a chance to offer its recommendations. For that, he was rebuked by the 6th District Chief Justice, Dan Flannell.

I had written an article in the summer 2014 issue of the Public i critical of Judge Klaus. The basis of my criticism was the sentences he imposed in two DUI cases. One involved Kathryn Daly, a Carle nurse and a mother of a 20 month-old son. She and her cousin had been drinking and the John Deere Gator she had been driving tipped over. Her cousin, a passenger, was killed. Despite pleas of her cousin’s parents for lenience, and despite the request of the State’s Attorney for no prison time, Klaus sentenced her to 3 and a half years in prison. A higher court rebuked Klaus for that, and Daley was released from prison early and placed on probation.

The other case involved Willie Craft, a 59 year-old diabetic who was a U of I retiree. Craft had taken his insulin but not eaten in the morning. While driving his truck on Lincoln Avenue, he went into a diabetic coma and killed a U of I student. He too got a 3-and-one-half year sentence for “employing a vehicle as a lethal weapon.” Like Daly, he had no criminal record. Like Daly, he was caring for a minor, a granddaughter he had adopted. Basically, he was sentenced for not eating and going into a coma.

In that summer article I posed the question, “How much longer will people of this county tolerate a [court] system that, with the stated intention of ‘protecting’ the community, refuses to understand that prosecution and imprisonment is not always the best way to deal with terribly tragic accidents, and in the process compounds the suffering of good and caring people and their families?”

But Klaus continued to compound such tragedies. He gave a farmer, Timothy Bretz a six-year sentence after he was involved in a fatal accident. Betz had smoked cannabis two weeks prior and there were still traces of metabolites in his blood. Such metabolites (THC) can remain for a month or more after ingestion. Once again, Klaus exceeded what the prosecution had asked for. After Bretz’s sentencing I wrote another article in the local online magazine Smile Politely (December 2014) in which I concluded that “Klaus must be removed from the bench before he distributes more injudicious misery to other defendants, people who might not be able to afford a skilled criminal lawyer like Daley’s to appeal Klaus’s decisions.”

Yet Klaus struck again. In February he sentenced a Nigerian immigrant, Bidemi Ajobiewe, to six years in prison. Mr. Ajobiewe was working as a mover. His truck skidded on the ice between Danville and C/U and crashed into a car. He too had metabolites but testified that he had smoked cannabis at least a week prior to the accident.

Aside from Klaus’s dismissal, there is one other good piece of news. Unlike alcohol, there were no statutory measurement criteria to presume impairment by cannabis when Klaus was handing down his cruelly excessive sentences to Betz and Ajobiewe. A new bill that has been passed by both houses of the Illinois legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature stipulates that there must be a certain amount of metabolites in a person’s system (15 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood, or 25 of saliva) before it can be presumed that impairment by cannabis is a causal factor in an accident. However, the bill would also permit a police officer at the accident scene to make a court admissible judgment of impairment based upon his or her training and experience.

While simply striking cannabis metabolites from DUI statutes would have been preferable in my view, this bill is still a step forward in curtailing the kind of arbitrariness exhibited by Klaus. It is important that the governor sign it.

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