Dee Brant's anger wasn't directed at the chronic speeder who killed her son.
She was angry at a system that let the speeder stay on the roads despite him bragging about having "the worst driving record" of anyone he knew. She was angry at how the courts had cut him breaks time after time by giving him a special probation called court supervision.
So after the 2004 crash, her Naperville family successfully lobbied for a new state law forbidding judges from giving drivers more than two supervisions a year.
But a Tribune investigation found that law is now regularly broken by the very people who are supposed to enforce it.
Thousands of times a year, judges in the Chicago area sentence speeders to extra, illegal supervisions. The newspaper's analysis showed that in the six-county metro area, the law is ignored about 11 times each day court is in session — a finding that enrages Brant.
"It makes me sick to my stomach," she said. "Why do people work on laws when they're not going to be followed?"
The newspaper's analysis found that, since 2007:
• More than 6,000 area drivers got an extra, illegal supervision. Nearly 1,300 got multiple illegal supervisions. One driver got nine of them, on top of two legal ones.
The problem is centered on metro Chicago: Cook and the five collar counties. Even when adjusted for caseloads, the odds are 60 percent higher that an illegal supervision will be handed out here than elsewhere.
Court and state officials have failed to correct, or even track, illegal supervisions handed out to speeders.
Supervision has become the most popular sentence for speeders. Courts don't record the tickets as convictions, so the state can't share them with insurance companies. While licenses can be suspended for three convictions in a year, supervisions aren't counted.
The Tribune reported in March how judges routinely grant supervisions to even the most egregious speeders — those cited for going 100 mph or faster, even many who were drunk at the time. Judges have defended those deals and stressed there is nothing illegal about them; a bill to ban supervisions for most speeders going that fast has yet to be signed by the governor.
The latest Tribune analysis looks at lax enforcement of the law limiting supervisions to two a year, the law Brant fought to pass.
Complicating the analysis was the secrecy around supervisions. By statute, the state keeps two sets of driving records: one for the courts and one for the public. The public records don't show supervisions. Without the names of those getting illegal supervisions, the Tribune could not search court records to see which judges were handing them out, and why.
Court officials said they, too, couldn't explain the problem without specific cases to review. But, in general, courts acknowledged holes in how defendants are screened for supervision.
For those who mail in tickets and request this sentence, some aren't checked against statewide databases to ensure they qualify. For defendants who appear in court, judges rely on prosecutors to screen them. The prosecutors may work for counties, cities or towns, and some may lack the time, resources or desire to check driver backgrounds before court, officials say.
While most of the area's administrative judges didn't respond to requests for comment, those who did said they will work to close the gaps. That includes the area's largest county, Cook.
"No judge sitting in Cook County is interested in promoting a system of justice that permits dangerous drivers to remain on the road," county Chief Judge Timothy Evans said in a statement.
Still, some judges say the error rate — about 1 percent of all supervisions — isn't bad, considering the staffing crunch on all government agencies.
"We just need more judicial resources, more state's attorneys and judges," said Judge F. Keith Brown, chief judge of the 16th Circuit, which includes Kane County. "We are being pinched."
Brant and the secretary of state's office see no valid excuse. The state's computerized database offers complete driver records "that are just a keystroke away" and take seconds to review, said agency spokesman Henry Haupt.
And even though a 1 percent error rate may seem small, it amounts to thousands of chronic speeders put back on the roads with less incentive to slow down, Brant said.
"We are not protecting people," she said. "If we're going to hand out supervision after supervision, it will catch up to these individuals. They're going to kill."
Reform after reform
State lawmakers created supervisions in the 1970s, pitching them as a fair break for first-time offenders.
But repeat offenders have long enjoyed breaks, too, including a trucker who had received a supervision before he pulled his rig in front of an oncoming Amtrak train near Bourbonnais. The 1999 collision killed 11, injured 121 and reignited the debate over supervisions.
After that tragedy, Secretary of State Jesse White lobbied for a law requiring all courts to report supervisions to a central database that courts could check when sentencing drivers. But the law forbids White's office from publicly naming anyone who gets a supervision.
A Tribune investigation at the time found that Cook County judges routinely granted supervisions to drivers who already had a dozen or more. In response, judges formed a committee to study limiting supervisions, but nothing came of it. New judges were trained to take traffic cases seriously, including a trip to meet people paralyzed from crashes, but they were given no limit on discretion.
Area courts kept issuing supervisions to chronic offenders, often wrapped in quick plea deals negotiated by harried prosecutors. The deal remained the norm for offenders such as Michael Walt.
He bragged online about all the tickets he'd gotten, including seven for speeding and three for crashes. He eventually garnered three convictions close enough together to trigger a license suspension, but his lawyer got a Kane County judge to turn two of them into supervisions.
Walt got his license back and in March 2004 was speeding nearly 70 mph in a 45-mph zone when he slammed into a car driven by Brant's 17-year-old daughter Krista at Ogden Avenue and 75th Street in Aurora. The crash killed Walt's girlfriend, Lindsey Kelber, and Brant's 15-year-old son, Matt. Krista Brant was seriously injured but recovered.
Walt was later convicted of speeding, fined $1,200, ordered to do 160 hours of community service and had his license revoked.
By then, Dee and her husband, Bob Brant, had discovered all of Walt's supervisions and began lobbying for a bill, with White, to limit supervisions.
"I said, 'If it happened to us, it probably happened before, and it will happen again,'" Dee Brant said.
Their effort became law Jan. 1, 2006.
Walt told licensing officials he was a changed man, got his license back in 2007 and moved to Florida. He hasn't had any tickets since. He declined to comment.
The Brants formed the nonprofit group faces4.org with another couple who had lost loved ones to a crash caused by a chronic speeder given repeated supervisions. Dee Brant now gives talks at area schools about the crash and the dangers of speeding.
She assumed the law was being followed.
11 supervisions, 9 illegal
Yet since it was enacted, thousands of cases have slipped through the cracks with little oversight, the Tribune analysis showed.
To study the issue, the Tribune obtained redacted data — showing supervisions for speeders but no personal driver information — for tickets issued from Jan. 1, 2007, through Dec. 31, 2009.
The law says no driver can get a supervision for a ticket if, in the last 12 months, judges have sentenced the driver to two supervisions for other tickets. The Tribune found nearly 600,000 Chicago-area drivers got supervision at least once during the three years. About 60,000 — or 10 percent — got two supervisions in a year.
And nearly 6,000 of the 60,000 got an extra, illegal supervision.
The newspaper's analysis showed that in all but 11 Illinois counties, at least one illegal supervision was handed out. And in the Chicago area, the highest rate of illegal supervisions was in Cook County's suburban court in Bridgeview, where nearly 1,300 of the 83,000 supervisions were illegal.
The Bridgeview court was where one speeder had a field day.
After getting two apparently legal supervisions in early 2007, the driver pleaded guilty to 11 more speeding tickets in the next two years and got nine supervisions — all of them illegal by law.
Eight of the nine illegal supervisions were handed out at the Bridgeview courthouse.
Judge Evans' office is studying the data and trying to pinpoint where the breakdowns occurred in that case and others. Evans said he suspected a "substantial" number of the county's illegal supervisions were handed out through the mail-in system, and that the rest would have been by judges unaware they were breaking the law.
The secretary of state's office is powerless to change illegal supervisions into convictions. It doesn't even flag them in the state database. It does so for the small number of illegal supervisions handed out to drunken drivers, but the agency says the courts do nothing with the information, so it won't expand the program.
"If this (flagging) program has not been effective for DUI, it makes little sense to think it would have any measurable impact for speeders," Haupt said.
The agency, citing the law's secrecy provision, provided data to the Tribune only with drivers' identities masked behind anonymous numeric IDs. The driver who got nine illegal supervisions, for example, is noted simply as Driver No. 378582.
The secretary of state can give out only ticket dates, sentencing dates, charges and courthouses — and, for Driver No. 378582, one more piece of information.
He or she still has a valid license.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun