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The long-standing — in limited quarters — controversy over the so-called “Jones burglary” has been settled. Jones lost and, as a result, his namesake — the Jones burglary — stands.

“There went my 15 minutes of fame,” said now-retired Circuit Judge Michael Jones.

But it didn’t go quietly. The Illinois Supreme Court recently issued a 29-page decision dissecting the pros and cons of the Jones burglary. It included a vigorous dissent by Justice Mary Jane Theis, who embraced the arguments made in the past by Jones.

Nonetheless, the issue has been disposed of in an emphatic way.

What is a Jones burglary? Think of it as an enhanced case of shoplifting in which the wrongdoer faces prosecution on more serious burglary charges if the state can show the shoplifter entered the premises where he stole with the intent of stealing.

It’s a lot of legal mumbo jumbo that the layman doesn’t spend much time thinking about. But it’s the kind of subject that can — and did — fire up members of the legal community who prosecute and defend criminal cases.

Many a conversation at the lawyers’ weekly lunch in Urbana included back-and-forths on the subject of Jones’ irritation over prosecuting some shoplifters as burglars.

Jones’ position was vindicated in March when his objections to boosting shoplifting cases into burglaries won support from the Third District Appellate Court.

The unanimous three-judge panel overturned Darren Johnson’s conviction on burglary charges for stealing about $80 in clothing from a Walmart in the Whiteside community of Rock Falls.

But the Illinois Supreme Court, by a 5-2 margin, last week reversed the appellate court decision. In doing so, it upheld decisions in the 2nd and 4th districts that also sanctioned the practice of prosecuting some shoplifting cases as burglaries or both as burglaries and shoplifting.

The dispute stems from statutory language.

A burglary is defined by Illinois law as the following: "A person commits burglary when without authority he or she knowingly enters or without authority remains within a building. … with the intent to commit therein a felony or theft.”

In this case, Johnson argued that he wasn’t guilty of burglary because he, like other customers, had the authority to enter the Walmart.

But the courts have dealt with that argument by creating the “limited-authority doctrine,” which holds that “one’s otherwise valid authority to be in certain premises is vitiated when the individual acts in a manner inconsistent with the authority originally granted.”

In other words, a shoplifter/burglar forfeits his legal right to be present when he, unlike regular customers, enters a building with the intent to commit a crime.

In this case, prosecutors showed that Johnson and an acquaintance entered the Walmart carrying backpacks in which they stuffed stolen merchandise.

The 3rd District Appellate Court in Ottawa and a Supreme Court’s minority of Justices Theis and P. Scott Neville found that the state’s Retail Theft Act, passed after the decision establishing the “limited-authority doctrine,” essentially established a new, exclusive way to prosecute what most people consider to be shoplifting.

But, writing for the majority, Justice Robert Thomas said the 3rd District “misread” the circumstances, and the “limited authority doctrine” remains undisturbed.

Because it’s undisturbed, Johnson’s conviction for burglary stands in cases where intent to commit a theft can be proved.

“Given the difficulty of proving a defendant’s intent at the moment he or she enters a store, it is more probable that the vast majority of suspects will have to be charged only with retail theft because the state has insufficient evidence of intent at entry,” Justice Thomas wrote.

In response, Justice Theis concluded that “charging a person with burglary for merely entering a store with the intent to steal is antithetical to the General Assembly’s goal of pinpointing a targeted response to retail theft,” she said. “… I would reverse the defendant’s burglary conviction outright.”

Having disposed of the burglary question, the high court sent the case back to the appellate court to resolve other challenges Johnson made to his conviction, including one related to the trial judge’s highly questionable refusal to let jurors take notes on the evidence. Jurors are specifically allowed to take notes, so that is a potentially serious problem for the state.

But it’s mostly theoretical because Johnson already has completed his prison sentence. He was discharged from state prison in February 2018, meaning he has no real stake in the outcome of the appeal.

While meaningless to Johnson, the issue remains alive for Judge Jones.

“It’s settled legally, I guess,” he acknowledged. “I disagree.”

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

Opinions Editor

Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.