Sagging Pants? Jail time from one Cook County judge

Here’s how the criminal justice system worked for Stevon James:

After James pulled his cellphone out to record a police disturbance on West Congress Parkway in July, the police arrested him for using a “communication device while operating a bicycle.”

And when James went to his court date on July 31, Cook County Circuit Judge Gloria Chevere threw him in jail for 48 hours without ever hearing his case because his pants were too low.

He is not the only one.

In recent years, no other Cook County judge comes close to locking up as many people for their behavior inside Chicago’s criminal courtrooms as Judge Chevere, a Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates examination has found. The review found 30 times since 2011 when Chevere sent someone to jail – no hearing, no discussion – for conduct that she witnessed in the courtroom that she considered so outrageous it brings the court into disrepute.

It is an extraordinary power known as “direct criminal contempt,” and it authorizes judges to lock up people for conduct they witness without any need for a hearing. Judges have great discretion on when to use it; but it is, judicial experts agree, a power that can be abused and should be avoided.

The Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates review identified 74 cases, between the start of 2011 through August of 2014, when Cook County judges ordered people in their criminal courtrooms to go to jail for something they said or did. Judge Ann O’Donnell had the second highest number of contempt cases in that period – at six.

Most judges had not sent anyone to jail even once in the period, the review found.

The 30 cases of Chevere amounted to 40 percent of the 74 total number of cases of direct contempt in that period in Cook County criminal courtrooms.

Chevere declined to be interviewed last week about her use of contempt.

Not only does the confinement take away someone’s liberty; it also adds to the problems of a jail system already bulging with violent suspects. “Injecting people in here who you would say traditionally shouldn’t be in here, it doesn’t help, I’ll tell you that much,” Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart said in an interview with WGN anchor Mark Suppelsa. “We’d prefer not to have non-violent people in this jail.”

Current and former judges agree that contempt is a last resort, to be used very sparingly. “When I teach new judges every year, one of the things we teach is: Don’t hold people” in direct criminal contempt, said Warren Wolfson of DePaul University College of Law, who served as a trial court or appellate court judge for more than 30 years.  “I’ve put together panels of experienced judges and we always take a vote and none of us have ever done it.”

Another retired judge who takes part in judicial training, former Lake County judge Raymond McKoski, agreed. “Judges in Illinois are taught contempt is a last resort,” McKoski, who teaches at John Marshall Law School, said. “There needs to be warnings and attempts to handle the disruptive situation short of contempt, if it is at all possible.”

In the case of James, the charge against him – improper use of a cellphone while bike riding – was a violation of a city ordinance, not state law. So James was not automatically entitled to an attorney when he appeared in Chevere’s courtroom last July.

James said last week in an interview that he expected the charges of violating the “

When he was called to the bench the issue became his attire. “During my opening remarks I said that I expected everybody here to be on their best behavior at all times,” a transcript of the proceeding shows. “I also said that anyone exposing their underwear in this courtroom would be sentenced to a minimum of 48 hours in the Cook County Department of Corrections for direct criminal contempt.

“Stevon James, I find you in contempt of court, and I sentence you to 48 hours…”

James responded: “I just got here,” but the judge was unmoved. “Take him away,” she told sheriff’s deputies. 

In an interview with WGN’s Suppelsa, James recalled the hearing: “She didn’t let me explain. I couldn’t get a word out,” he said. “’Take him to the back,’” he recalled, “that’s all she said.”

What happened to James was no fluke. Seven other cases reviewed by Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates involved defendants whose pants were judge improperly sagging by Chevere.

Like James, Cleveland Clinton was in court for an ordinance violation – gang loitering -- so he too was without an attorney when his name was called on May 20. The transcript shows Chevere reminded him of her initial warning that “no one wants to see anybody’s underwear.” Clinton responded, “My pants too big,” and added, “I wasn’t here for your opening remarks.”

Chevere responded that she was not going to hear Clinton’s case that day; instead, he was going to jail for 48 hours.

“For what?,” asked Clinton.

Responded the judge: “For disrespecting the rules of the decorum in this courtroom and directly violating an order of this court. Deputy, take him away.”

It wasn’t much different when Fredrick Brown’s hearing on criminal trespass charges came up last April 16.   Judge Chevere concluded her opening remarks to the jurors by warning, according to a court transcript: “I don’t allow rodeo clown pants in this courtroom. So if you are wearing those kind of rodeo clown pants, you know, the kind where you can see the underwear, understand this. It will be considered disrespectful to this Court.

“It will be considered contempt of court and you’re going in for two days, and, if you appeal that, I’m going to win and you’re going to lose.” 

As Brown’s case was called that day, Judge Chevere said: “I need a sheriff’s deputy. Get a public defender to stand by this gentleman.”

 The prosecution was intending to drop all charges against Brown at the hearing. Judge Chevere acknowledged to the state’s attorney that the charges were being dropped, but then turned her attention to the defendant: “Now, Mr. Frederick Brown, put your hands behind your back. During my opening remarks I made it crystal clear that I was not going to allow any disrespect to this court or any contempt of court to be exhibited in this courtroom.”

Chevere concluded by telling Brown, “You are sentenced to two days in the Cook County Department of Corrections. Do you understand me? Have a good day.”

Other judges in other cities have ordered people to jail for wearing their pants too low, but such incidents generally occur in smaller cities and in the south. In Cook County, Chevere’s conduct stands out.

Retired Lake County judge McKoski, speaking generally about the issue, said that in his opinion judges should at the very least repeat the warning individually to someone whose pants are too low, telling them to pull them up.  That makes the contempt finding a last resort, said McKoski, and also guards against the fact that the offender may have just not heard or forgotten the warning. “They need another warning because the courtroom is a very stressful situation,” said McKoski.

McKoski said in his 25 years on the bench, he could recall only two instances of holding people in direct criminal contempt. One involved a defendant who tried to flee. The other involved a defendant who unleashed a string of obscenities at him, McKoski said, and ignored two repeated warnings by McKoski to stop the tirade or be held in contempt. “There needs to be warnings and attempts to handle the disruptive situation short of contempt, if it is at all possible,” he said.

On his 21st birthday last December, Tony Bush sat in Chevere’s courtroom last December waiting for his hearing. As he sat with his girl friend in the audience, he recalled in an interview last week,  he pulled up his pants and tightened his belt.

Then, as his name was called, Bush said, he pulled his pants up once more as he headed to the bench just to be safe.

But when he got to the front, a court transcript shows, Chevere told deputies to “stand behind this gentleman,” and then told him that he was going to jail for two days for indecent exposure.

“Somebody walking up here, showing their underwear to everybody in the courtroom is not being on your best behavior,” Chevere told Bush, as he explained, “I was adjusting.”

“You are held in direct criminal contempt for 48 hours,” the judge replied. “Take him away.”

In two cases reviewed by Medill Watchdog/WGN Investigates, the judge held in contempt of court spectators who said something objectionable as they watched proceedings.

The transcript does not reveal what Jautuanne Norris called out during an October, 2011 hearing of a friend. Norris, in a telephone interview, said it was one word: “Bullshit.”

The transcript shows that as a hearing was taking place, Judge Chevere heard a comment and asked who had said it. Judge Chevere then turned her attention to Norris, telling her: “During my opening remarks I know that I said that I expect everybody here to be on their best behavior, and that anything short of that would be considered contempt of court. That was contempt of court.”

Norris responded, “I was late, I didn’t hear that. I am sorry.”

Chevere replied, according to the transcript: “And that is not an excuse. All right, because that is just not the way you behave in a court of law” before issuing the sentence: Three days in jail.

For more on the story, please see the piece by WGN.