Unless you're an avid reader of the state's law books or have been a coroner in Illinois, the law on disposing of a dead person's belongings likely has never crossed the minds of most people.
However, in Kane County, the "Disposition of Property" law is a key component of three ongoing legal issues involving indicted Coroner Charles West.
The law generally provides guidance on what the coroner's office is supposed to do when items of value are discovered as part of a death investigation. On the books for years, the law has gotten a workout in recent court filings.
It has been called "unconstitutionally vague" by West's attorney, cited by West and the Kane County State's Attorney's Office to claim money and alluded to in a lawsuit claiming the third-term coroner retaliated against a whistleblower.
A special prosecutor used the law to secure an official misconduct indictment against West last year, alleging he failed to follow the rule by allowing two deputy coroners to take a dead Carpentersville man's TV for personal use.
West's attorney, Gary Johnson, claims the law is flawed because it does not define the word "valuable" and West's indictment doesn't declare the TV's value. At a May hearing, Johnson will argue that's enough to dismiss the indictment. West has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
While the special prosecutor used the law to indict West, the coroner himself is invoking it to claim a social security check belonging to a dead Elgin man for whom no next of kin could be located.
The State's Attorney's Office, on West's behalf, filed a formal request in March to claim a $1,721 check found when the coroner's office investigated the December 2010 death of Joseph Mindak.
An "extensive investigation" turned up no relatives, but left the coroner with $2,200 in expenses related to the search and handling of Mindak's remains, which were eventually turned over to "friends," according to court documents.
"The funds provided by Mr. Mindak's social security check would defray the coroner's fees," the motion states.
An April 25 hearing is scheduled on the request, which has been described as a relatively rare move in recent Kane County history.
Finally, a recently filed lawsuit brought by Chief Deputy Coroner Loren Carrera against West, as well as two deputy coroners—his son, Eric, and his girlfriend, Lisa Gilbert—suggests West tried to give out several items taken from the Carpentersville man's home to employees in the coroner's office.
Carrera's lawsuit primarily focuses on what she calls retaliation against her by West after she tipped authorities to the handling of the TV—which ties back to the disposition of property law—and other incidents at the coroner's office.
West "knowingly gave permission to defendants Eric West and Lisa Gilbert to remove and take (the TV) for their own personal benefit," the lawsuit states, adding the TV was moved from the coroner's van directly into Gilbert's vehicle.
She also claims Eric West and Gilbert, who share an Aurora residence, were given favorable treatment in the office, the lawsuit claims.
State's Attorney Joe McMahon, whose office represents county employees, said there will be no public comment on the lawsuit while the allegations and legal issues raised in the lawsuit are being reviewed with West, Johnson and the two deputy coroners.
"By statute we are the legal counsel for the defendants. This office will fulfill its responsibility to Kane County and its legal responsibility to represent the defendants in this lawsuit," McMahon said in a statement. "If it is determined that a legal conflict of interest is present and we are prohibited from representing the defendants in this case, we will confer with the appropriate parties and, if necessary, seek outside counsel."