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Illinois Department of Corrections Must Pay Attorney For Indigent Committed Under Sexually Dangerous Persons Act

By Matt Clarke

An Illinois court of appeals has held that the Illinois Department of Corrections (DOC) must pay the court costs and attorney fees for an indigent person committed under the Illinois Sexually Dangerous Persons Act (SDPA), 725 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 205/0.01 et seq., who applied for discharge.

Troy E. Downs, a person committed under the SDPA, petitioned a state circuit court for discharge and requested appointment of counsel. The circuit court appointed counsel under section 205/5 of the SDPA. The attorney moved for and was granted interim attorney fees and litigation costs. The DOC appealed.

On appeal, the DOC claimed the awarding of costs and attorney fees violated the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Reviewing de novo, as this appeal involved only questions of law, the court of appeals held as follows: Unlike the Sexually Violent Persons Commitment Act (SVPCA), 725 ILCS 207/1 et seq., the SDPA makes the committed person a ward of the Director of Corrections. Therefore, previous rulings that the DOC did not have to pay for the attorney of persons committed under the SVPCA do not control in this case. Because 725 ILCS 205/8 of the SDPA establishes a guardianship relationship between the committed person and the Director of Corrections, the DOC is the appropriate source for the recovery of attorney fees. The DOC does not have sovereign immunity because sovereign immunity only protects the state when it is a defendant in a lawsuit. In this case, the state initiated the lawsuit and cannot be termed the defendant. Furthermore, the SDPA specifically authorizes an appointed attorney for indigent persons, thus the state has effectively waived sovereign immunity on the issue.

These issues had been previously resolved in People v. Wilcoxen, 358 Ill. App. 3d 274, 831 N.E.2d 633, 294 Ill. Dec. 683 (2005); but the DOC maintained that Wilcoxen had been incorrectly decided. The court of appeals reaffirmed the decision in Willcoxen in all aspects. The Court of appeals also noted that the state legislature had an opportunity to amend the SDPA after Wilcoxen was decided. Since the legislature declined to do so, “it will be presumed that the legislature has acquiesced in the court’s exposition of the legislative intent.” Therefore, the orders of the circuit court granting attorney fees and costs were affirmed. See: People v. Downs, 371 Ill.App.3d 1187; 864 N.E.2d 320 (2007) (decided 03-06-07).

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Related legal case

People v. Downs