Michigan Supreme Court Holds Lesser-Included Jury Instruction Is Error

On December 23rd, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court held in a criminal case that the trial court erred in granting defendant's motion for a lesser-included offense instruction of moving violation causing death as opposed to reckless driving causing death. The Court held that the Michigan Legislature did not violate the judiciary's power to promulgate its own rules of procedures, finding that the specific statutory prohibition against the lesser-included offense was a matter of substantive law. The Court also held that the law did not violate defendant's Sixth Amendment rights.

In People v. Jones, Docket No. 147735, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed the question of whether the trial court and the Court of Appeals were correct in approving defendant's request for a lesser-included jury instruction in a reckless driving causing death case. 

From the opinion's syllabus:

Thabo Jones was charged in the 36th District Court with reckless driving causing death in violation of MCL 257.626(4). The court, Cylenthia L. Miller, J., bound defendant over to the Wayne Circuit Court following a preliminary examination. In a pretrial motion, defendant requested that the circuit court instruct the jury on the lesser included offense of moving violation causing death, MCL 257.601d, although MCL 257.626(5) specifically prohibits giving this instruction when the charged offense is reckless driving causing death. The circuit court, Richard M. Skutt, J., granted the motion, concluding that MCL 257.626(5) unconstitutionally infringed the judiciary’s authority to establish court practice and procedure. The Court of Appeals, RONAYNE KRAUSE and SHAPIRO, JJ. (K. F. KELLY, J., dissenting), affirmed. 302 Mich App 434 (2013). The Supreme Court granted the prosecutor’s interlocutory application for leave to appeal. 495 Mich 905 (2013).

In an opinion by Justice KELLY, joined by Chief Justice YOUNG and Justices MARKMAN, ZAHRA, and MCCORMACK, the Supreme Court held:

The circuit court erred by granting defendant’s request to instruct the jury on moving violation causing death. The Legislature acted within its constitutional authority by creating a substantive exception that prohibited the jury’s consideration of that lesser offense when the charged offense is reckless driving causing death.

1. MCL 768.32(1) sets forth the general rule that a defendant is entitled to have the jury instructed on necessarily included lesser offenses. MCL 257.626(5) sets forth a clear exception to this general rule: when a defendant is charged with reckless driving causing death, the jury shall not be instructed regarding the crime of moving violation causing death. Under People v Cornell, 466 Mich 335 (2002), this legislative modification did not impermissibly infringe the Supreme Court’s constitutional authority to enact rules governing practice and procedure because determining what charges a jury may consider concerned a matter of substantive law.

2. Defendant did not have a Sixth Amendment right to have the jury instructed on moving violation causing death. While the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the jury must have the opportunity to convict on a lesser included offense in capital cases, it has expressly declined to rule on whether there is a constitutional entitlement to have the jury consider lesser included offenses in cases involving noncapital offenses. The fact that MCL 257.626(5) is silent in the context of a judge sitting as finder of fact did not alter this conclusion. Given the clear intent of the Legislature to forbid consideration of the lesser misdemeanor offense of moving violation causing death when a defendant has been charged with reckless driving causing death, a judge trying a case without a jury would understand that the defendant could not be convicted of the lesser offense.

Justice VIVIANO, concurring in the result, would have decided the case on the nonconstitutional ground that the offense of moving violation causing death, which may only be committed by a person operating a motor vehicle, is not a necessarily included lesser offense of reckless driving causing death, which may be committed in a non-motor vehicle.

Court of Appeals judgment reversed; case remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings.

Justice CAVANAGH, dissenting, would have affirmed on the basis of his views that jury instructions are procedural rather than substantive, that MCL 257.626(5) violates the constitutional separation-of-powers doctrine because it conflicts with MCR 2.512(B)(2), and that MCL 257.626(5) violates defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights by limiting their ability to present their theory of the case and by effectively punishing them for exercising their right to a trial by jury.

Adam RumschlagComment