One of the more fascinating things about the media frenzy surrounding state Sen. Donne Trotter’s arrest last week was that not one of his Democratic 2nd Congressional District opponents immediately jumped in front of the cameras to comment publicly about the matter.
They stayed silent even when Trotter, D-Chicago, announced after he was bonded out of jail the next day that he wouldn’t drop out of the race to replace former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.
Trotter was arrested Wednesday morning for allegedly trying to take an unloaded pistol through a security checkpoint at O’Hare International Airport. Reporters swarmed the courthouse after Trotter posted bond Thursday and then, when he refused to comment, some descended on his home on Chicago’s South Side.
His arrest was one of the biggest news stories in the city, mainly because of his congressional bid, yet none of his dozen or so prospective Democratic opponents in the 2nd District special election immediately issued a statement or responded on the record to questions about the case.
One campaign insider said late last week that his operation was maintaining a “no comment” stance regarding Trotter, but marveled how it was “really amazing” that everybody had shown such restraint in a race that is so hotly contested.
Well, Trotter is armed, I cracked.
Ironically enough, Trotter was arrested for allegedly violating a law he voted for – twice: Once a decade ago when he voted to increase the penalties for such an offense from a misdemeanor to a felony, and again a few years ago when he moved that statutory language to another part of the state law books.
“It is unlawful for any person to board or attempt to board any commercial or charter aircraft, knowingly having in his or her possession any firearm, explosive of any type, or other lethal or dangerous weapon.”
Notice the word “knowingly” in the text. Trotter told police he forgot he had the small, .25-caliber pistol and a separate ammo clip in his garment bag.
Trotter’s story is that he didn’t knowingly bring the gun through security – which seems logical because bringing a pistol to O’Hare is a spectacularly stupid thing to do. The Cook County State’s Attorney, however, decided to go ahead and charge him with a Class 4 felony, which upon conviction carries a prison sentence of one to three years and a fine of up to $25,000.
But a former county state’s attorney who also was once a legislator, says Trotter’s “I forgot” defense will be a “tough slog.”
“The case law on this provision [knowledge] is clear and well-established,” the prosecutorial veteran said in an email message. “About the only way I could see a possible defense under this provision would be if Donne picked up someone else’s luggage that looked just like his luggage and carried it to security without ‘knowing’ that it contained a gun – or that someone planted a gun in his luggage.”
The former legislator said that while he always liked Trotter, the Chicago senator is “in a world of hurt with the law.” But he added it’s “ridiculous” that every unlawful use of a weapon charge is a felony, a penalty that Trotter ironically supported. “There is no misdemeanor provision of UUW available for first time offenders,” he grumbled.
Word from inside is that Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez may take a hard look at Trotter’s revelation about his special gun-carrying permit in connection with a job with a Chicago security company.
Things could get very ugly, or end very quickly. And his opponents may have jumped on Trotter by the time you read this.
• Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.