Illinois Supreme Court to Hear Due Process Challenge to Liquor License Revocation

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Our previews of the latest additions to the Illinois Supreme Court's civil docket continue with WISAM 1, d/b/a Sheridan Liquors v. Illinois Liquor Control Commission, an unpublished decision from the Third District Appellate Court. WISAM involves a due process challenge to the revocation of the plaintiff's liquor license.

First, a bit of background. Federal law requires that any time a financial institution is involved in any way in a deposit, withdrawal, exchange of currency or other payment or transfer involving more than $10,000, a "currency transaction report" must be filed. Deliberately arranging your transactions to keep under the $10,000 limit -- a process called "structuring" or "smurfing" -- is a serious criminal offense.

Section 3-28 of the ordinances of the city of Peoria provides that no "officer, associate, member, representative, agent or employee" of a liquor licensee shall violate any ordinance of the city or law of the state or of the United States "in or about the licensed premises."

The plaintiff in WISAM received a notice of hearing re revocation of its liquor license, alleging that the plaintiff had violated Section 3-28. At the hearing, the City's attorney introduced a copy of a federal indictment of one of the plaintiff's managers, along with copies of the transcripts from his federal criminal trial. According to the indictment, the manager had engaged in structuring, making significant withdrawals below $10,000 in connection with the plaintiff's check-cashing business. The plaintiff objected to admission of the transcripts on hearsay grounds, but not to the stipulation or indictment.

After opening statements (and before the plaintiff had introduced any evidence), the city's attorney moved for a directed finding, which was granted on the grounds that the manager's activities amounted to a violation of Section 3-28. The plaintiff was allowed to make an offer of proof to make a record for appeal, and showed that the money had been handled as it was because the plaintiff's insurance coverage was limited to $10,000 cash on hand. During the penalty phase, the plaintiff's president reaffirmed this point, testifying that the cash transactions were handled as they were for insurance reasons and safety. The Local Liquor Control Commission revoked the plaintiff's license. The Illinois Liquor Control Commission affirmed, holding that the finding of a violation of Section 3-28 was supported by substantial evidence, and the plaintiff was not denied due process. The plaintiff then appealed to the Third District.

On appeal, the plaintiff raised two arguments: (1) the plaintiff was denied due process when the liquor control commissioner admitted the transcripts into evidence and immediately granted the City's motion for a directed finding; and (2) the transcripts were hearsay, and absent the transcripts there was insufficient evidence to support the finding of a violation of Section 3-28.

Although the Appellate Court took a dim view of the procedure below -- cutting off any defense at all by the plaintiff to immediately enter a directed finding -- the Court found no prejudice arising from the due process violation. The court pointed to the testimony of plaintiff's president, who conceded that the plaintiff deliberately kept its withdrawals below $10,000 because of its insurance limits. The court concluded that the Commission had permissibly concluded that the true purpose behind the pattern of the plaintiff's transactions was as set forth in the indictment and stipulation. Concluding that there was sufficient evidence to support the finding of a violation of Section 3-28, the Court affirmed.

Justice Mary McDade dissented, pointing out that nothing in the indictment alleged that the manager had carried out the charged transactions "in or about the licensed premises," as required to find a violation of Section 3-28. Therefore, the indictment had no probative value. Nor was the testimony of the plaintiff's president sufficient to support the revocation; his testimony that the transactions were kept below $10,000 for insurance reasons was corroborated by insurance documents. Therefore, Justice McDade argued, it was necessary to determine whether the transcripts were inadmissible hearsay. Given that there was no showing that the convicted manager was unavailable at the time of the hearing, Justice McDade concluded that the transcripts were indeed hearsay, and the Commission’s finding should therefore have been reversed.

We expect WISAM to be decided within six to eight months.