A state appeals panel has rebuked a downstate prosecutor for building his own police force to conduct traffic stops and drug arrests.

In an 18-page opinion Wednesday, the 3rd District Appellate Court ruled LaSalle County State’s Attorney Brian J. Towne overstepped his authority by using special investigators to act as police officers.

The Ottawa-based panel affirmed 13th Judicial Circuit Court rulings that suppressed evidence in five felony drug cases.

In each of those cases, a trial judge ruled that a special investigator employed by Towne’s office did not comply with steps under state law to serve as a special investigator and, as such, did not have the authority to make the traffic stop or arrest.

Towne created the State’s Attorney’s Felony Enforcement (SAFE) unit in 2011 to patrol LaSalle County’s stretch of Interstate 80.

It employed former police officers as “special investigators,” who are authorized under the Illinois Counties Code to serve subpoenas and conduct investigations for the prosecutor’s office.

In its ruling, the panel agreed that the investigator did not comply with requirements to submit fingerprints to a state police database and was not authorized as a special investigator.

But it also ruled that regardless of compliance, the law doesn’t grant a prosecutor-appointed investigator the full powers of a sworn police officer.

“Leaving aside the issue of whether the state’s attorney either strictly or substantially complied with the fingerprint requirement of the statute, we agree with defendant … that the conduct of both the SAFE unit and [the investigator] exceeded the scope” of a special investigator’s authority, Justice Daniel L. Schmidt wrote.

He later added: “Taken to its furthest logical conclusion, the SAFE unit would be no different than the county sheriff’s police.”

Schmidt wrote that the panel could not find any justification under that law for SAFE’s operation.

“We cannot fathom how patrolling Interstate 80, issuing warning tickets, and confiscating contraband can be realistically viewed as ‘conducting investigations that assist the [s]tate’s [a]ttorney with his duties,’” Schmidt wrote, quoting the Counties Code provision that defines the state’s attorney’s powers.

Schmidt added: “The state’s attorney created yet another branch of law enforcement.”

In a written statement, Towne said his office intends to appeal the ruling. He said the court was only asked to address compliance with fingerprint rules, not the propriety of the SAFE unit as a whole.

“Courts, like all of us, make mistakes,” Towne said. “Such mistakes, when made, are routinely addressed to our Supreme Court.”

The five traffic stops occurred between January 2012 and March 2013. They resulted in the seizure of large amounts of cash, methamphetamine, marijuana and cocaine.

All five were conducted by Jeffrey Gaither, who retired from the Illinois State Police in 2011 after 24 years of service. He was hired by SAFE and began conducting traffic stops in a black Ford Explorer provided by the state’s attorney’s office.

Each of the SAFE unit’s arrests included an automatic dispatching of a canine unit, which in the case of Cara Ringland, the ruling says, alerted officers to more than 5,000 grams of marijuana in the U-Haul van she was driving.

Each of the five defendants — Ringland, Steve Pirro, James Saxen, Steven Harris and Matthew Flynn — filed motions to quash the evidence obtained by Gaither.

They argued Gaither had not followed the basic steps required to become a special investigator, including failing to file his fingerprints with the Illinois State Police. The trial court agreed with the defense in each of the cases.

Towne said the question of whether the SAFE unit was authorized by the statute was not the issue presented by the state on appeal.

“Accordingly, (prosecutors) simply were not permitted an opportunity to fully analyze — and present evidence regarding — whether the SAFE unit was authorized by statute,” Towne said.

Stephen M. Komie of Komie & Associates represented Ringland in her pretrial motions and argued the case on appeal.

“This ruling rebalances the government in LaSalle County so the prosecutor is not the chief of police or the highway patrol,” Komie said.

“The creation of this unit eliminated any oversight by the prosecutor of the officers employed. There was no checks or balances on the legality of their behavior.”

Allan A. Ackerman, owner of Allan A. Ackerman P.C., also represented Ringland.

“This is a very, very unusual affirmation by the appellate court of a unique position taken by an Illinois prosecutor,” Ackerman said. “There is no Illinois authority which permits the state’s attorney in any county to utilize special state’s attorney investigators to create cases, which is what Mr. Towne did.”

Justices Tom M. Lytton and Mary K. O’Brien concurred in the ruling.

The case is People v. Cara M. Ringland, 2015 IL App (3d) 130523.