Appellate Judges

American Justice: A Cook County Judge Found Not Guilty Despite Incriminating Video Footage and Several Witnesses

Cook County Judge Joseph Claps was acquitted of a misdemeanor gun charge by another judge who said prosecutors failed to prove their case.

Judge acquitted on misdemeanor gun charge despite video evidence

OCT 23, 2018 | REPUBLISHED BY LIT: JUN 6, 2021

Cook County Judge Joseph Claps was acquitted Tuesday of a misdemeanor gun charge by another judge who said prosecutors failed to prove the object dropped by Claps in a courthouse lobby was, in fact, a firearm.

Claps held his hand to his face, then wiped away tears as Will County Judge Edward Burmila announced his acquittal following a brief bench trial in the branch courthouse in west suburban Maywood.

Burmila had been brought in to preside over the case due to Claps’ working relationships with other Cook County judges.

Prosecutors played surveillance footage appearing to show a gun falling out of Claps’ jacket and onto the floor of the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building in early July.

Two Cook County sheriff’s deputies testified Tuesday they were in the lobby when it happened and said the object was, in fact, a gun.

In ruling from the bench, Burmila, though, said he “can’t believe” the deputies didn’t immediately seize the weapon under those circumstances.

“If it was, in fact, a firearm, then regardless of their protocol, they would have seized it,” Burmila said. “… It very well may be the case that Joe Claps had a firearm in the courthouse that day … but the issue here is not for me to speculate or postulate as to what might have happened. The state has to prove that it happened, and it did not.”

Both deputies testified they thought the judge may have been legally permitted to carry a weapon in the courthouse, located at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago. Weapons are prohibited in the courthouse even for concealed carry license-holders such as Claps.

Claps’ attorney, Thomas Breen, hammered at the fact that neither deputy had examined or confiscated the object that Claps had dropped to know whether it was indeed a gun.

“There is no evidence that whatever that object was that was dropped had the capability of firing a bullet,” Breen said. “It could have been a cap gun. It could have been a water pistol. It could have been a lighter, a cigar lighter. It could have been anything.”

Judge Joseph Claps leaves the Cook County Courthouse in Maywood after being acquitted of a misdemeanor gun charge on Tuesday, Oct. 23.

But prosecutor David Robinson — who was brought in from the Illinois state’s attorney’s appellate prosecutor’s office because a judge was charged — urged Burmila to use common sense, saying the security footage supported the deputies’ testimony. He also noted that the deputies are trained to recognize weapons.

“If it looks like a gun and quacks like a gun and (Claps) has a concealed carry permit and two eyewitnesses who are trained in firearms identify it, you have to be the judge of that … but it seems pretty unequivocal to the state that it was a gun,” Robinson said.

Without admitting Claps had a gun, Breen argued that the judge would have left any weapon in his car and never brought it inside the courthouse.

“You’ve got to prove him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “I don’t care if he’s a judge or he’s a guy who walks out of your bullpen. That’s the standard.”

During the hourlong trial, Claps at times appeared tense, holding his head in his hand. At other times, he conferred with his attorneys and took notes. He did not testify and left the courthouse without comment.

Before announcing his decision, Burmila said that Claps’ status as a judge had nothing to do with the facts at hand.

“He is not on trial here because of the position that he holds but because of what he may or may not have done,” Burmila said. “Joseph Claps citizen is on trial, not Judge Joseph Claps.”

Deputies witnessed a gun tumbling out of Judge Joseph Claps’ jacket at a Chicago courthouse in early July, authorities said. Prosecutors played surveillance footage.

Claps, who was charged with carrying a concealed weapon in a prohibited area, had been reassigned to paid administrative duties since the incident in July.

The Class B misdemeanor carried a maximum penalty of 180 days in jail and a $2,500 fine.

In a statement later Tuesday, a spokesman for Chief Judge Timothy Evans said that Claps remains on administrative duty and noted that the matter has been referred to the Judicial Inquiry Board, which investigates judges.

Claps, 70, has been a judge for more than two decades, including the last 15 years with the Circuit Court’s criminal division. He previously worked as the top assistant to the Illinois attorney general and as a Cook County prosecutor.

Claps was walking in the courthouse lobby July 3 when sheriff’s officials say two deputies saw a silver pistol fall out of a jacket that was draped over his arm. Claps picked up the alleged weapon and put it into his pants pocket.

The deputies reported it to their supervisor, and a review of security video showed an item that appeared to confirm what the deputies reported, sheriff’s officials said.

At a hearing in August, prosecutors had asked Burmila to delay the trial until later in the year to allow the FBI to enhance the video.

But Breen objected, arguing that the enhancement as well as the delay smacked of harassment and ultimately would not show whether the item seen falling from Claps’ coat was a gun or whether it was loaded.

On Tuesday, as reporters questioned him outside the courthouse following Claps’ acquittal, Breen declined comment but pulled a small toy gun out of his pocket — then dropped it on the sidewalk with a smile.

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American Justice: A Cook County Judge Found Not Guilty Despite Incriminating Video Footage and Several Witnesses
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