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

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When police officers spot suspicious behavior, they have a legal right to check it out.

But in a recent decision by a state appeals court, justices ruled that when police spot someone carrying a gun, they can’t inquire further unless there’s other questionable behavior accompanying the gun possession.

The decision by the First District Appellate Court (Cook County) is both a search-and-seizure brain teaser, as well as a head-scratcher that justifies review by the Illinois Supreme Court.

Dissenting Justice Daniel Pierce characterized the majority opinion as “contrary to the law and common sense.”

But Justices Michael Hyman and Carl Walker carried the day when they reversed the conviction of Edward Bloxton, a 47-year-old Chicago man convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm whose serial numbers had been filed off.

Here’s the story.

In November 2017, police were patrolling a high-crime Chicago neighborhood when they spotted a group of about 10 individuals standing on a public street. Some of them, not Bloxton, were drinking from plastic cups, raising concerns they were consuming alcohol on a public way.

It’s hard to believe officers really cared much about the potential drinking, but it did provide a good excuse for officers to further investigate potential misconduct.

When officers approached, Bloxton decided to leave, according to testimony. As he did, one officer “saw a large bulge in Bloxton’s right front pocket” that he thought “might be a firearm.”

The officer followed as Bloxton ignored multiple requests that he stop. When the officer finally caught up with Bloxton, he discovered the gun with the defaced serial numbers.

Bloxton was arrested and charged with illegal possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and possession of a defaced firearm.

Bloxton told police he bought the gun for self-defense, paying $250 for it because he said “the youngins have been shooting everybody up.”

Bloxton’s defense lawyer sought to suppress the gun as evidence because he said police lacked probable cause to arrest his client for disobeying a police order to stop. Trial Judge Vince Gaughan ruled Bloxton was not arrested until the officer discovered the illegal gun.

Ultimately, Bloxton was sentenced to five years in prison. He’s now on parole.

On appeal, however, the appellate court overturned the conviction because Bloxton’s defense lawyer failed to raise the proper — and winning — argument to throw out the gun as evidence.

Justice Hyman said the defense lawyer should have argued that “police officers did not have probable cause to arrest (Bloxton) based solely on possessing a firearm” because they didn’t know before arresting him that he had no legal authority to carry a firearm.

“Bloxton argues that ... mere possession no longer constitutes a crime, and the officers were unaware of his criminal record that made his possession illegal,” Hyman wrote in the majority opinion.

Hyman said there was no probable cause to arrest Bloxton because he was “walking toward a nearby house and not running from police.”

“In short, the officers only knew that Bloxton possessed a gun, which no longer alone amounts to criminal conduct,” wrote Hyman, citing the Illinois Supreme Court decision striking down Illinois law criminalizing gun possession because it violates the Second Amendment right to possess firearms.

Dissenting Justice Pierce, however, saw matters differently based on the “totality of the circumstances” that he argued gave the officers, first, the right to briefly stop and question Bloxton and, second, the authority to arrest him after discovering the defaced gun.

“Mere gun possession was not the scenario that presented itself to the police in this case, since the recovered firearm was defaced, a crime,” he wrote.

It is extremely unlikely that Chicago Police officers are doing today what they were doing in 2017 — aggressively inquiring after suspicious behavior.

Chicago newspapers have been full of reports that, in light of the nationwide protests and riots following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, officers are doing little more than responding to calls for assistance.

Police critics, no doubt, are pleased that police are less aggressive. But there’s a definite downside.

Last week, The Chicago Tribune reported the number of homicides in the city increased roughly 50 percent from 2019 to 2020 — up to 769 in 2020 from 495 in 2019. Statistics released by the police department revealed there were 3,261 shootings in 2020 compared to 2,140 in 2019.

Police said the number of shooting victims climbed from 2,598 in 2019 to 4,033 in 2020.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-351-5369.

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