Michigan Supreme Court Holds Joyriding Not A Strict Liability Crime

On May 20th, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court held that criminal joyriding under MCL 750.414 is not a strict liability crime, but contains the mens rea element that the taker must have intended to take the vehicle without authority. 

In Rambin v Allstate Insurance Company, Docket No. 146256, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed an appeal from the Michigan Court of Appeals in a civil case centering around Allstate's denial of no-fault benefits to an injured plaintiff.

From the syllabus of the Court's opinion:

Lejuan Rambin brought an action in the Wayne Circuit Court against Allstate Insurance Company and Titan Insurance Company, seeking payment of personal protection insurance (PIP) benefits under the no-fault act, MCL 500.3101 et seq.

Rambin had been injured while riding a motorcycle owned by and registered to Scott Hertzog. At the time of the accident, Rambin did not own a motor vehicle. The car involved in the accident was uninsured, but Rambin averred that Hertzog owned a car that Allstate insured. Allstate denied Rambin’s claim for PIP benefits.

Rambin alternatively alleged that if Allstate was not the responsible insurer, he was entitled to PIP benefits from Titan, the insurer to which the Michigan Assigned Claims Facility had assigned his claim. Titan and Allstate moved for summary disposition, asserting that Rambin had taken the motorcycle unlawfully and was therefore barred from recovering PIP benefits by the unlawful-taking exclusion of MCL 500.3113(a).

Rambin also moved for summary disposition, asserting (1) that he had joined a motorcycle club even though he did not own a motorcycle, (2) that Hertzog’s motorcycle was subsequently stolen, (3) that Rambin needed a motorcycle to participate in a club ride, (4) that a person named Andre Smith had offered to loan him a motorcycle, and (5) that during the ride he collided with the uninsured automobile while operating that motorcycle.

The court, Susan D. Borman, J., granted both defendants summary disposition, and Rambin appealed. The Court of Appeals, DONOFRIO, P.J., and BOONSTRA, J. (RONAYNE KRAUSE, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part), reversed and remanded, holding that Rambin had not taken the motorcycle unlawfully within the meaning of MCL 500.3113(a).

The Court of Appeals further stated that there was no dispute that Rambin had not taken the motorcycle in violation of the Michigan Penal Code, MCL 750.1 et seq., and that from his perspective, there had been no unlawful taking. 297 Mich App 679 (2012). Allstate applied for leave to appeal, and the Supreme Court ordered and heard oral argument on whether to grant the application or take other peremptory action. 493 Mich 973 (2013). 

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

MCL 750.414, which prohibits the unlawful taking of a vehicle, is not a strict-liability crime, but contains the mens rea element that the taker must have intended to take the vehicle without authority. 

1. MCL 500.3113(a) provides that a person is not entitled to PIP benefits for accidental bodily injury if at the time of the accident the person was using a motor vehicle or motorcycle that he or she had taken unlawfully unless the person reasonably believed that he or she was entitled to take and use the vehicle. MCL 750.414, informally called a joyriding statute, provides that any person who takes or uses without authority a motor vehicle without the intent to steal the vehicle or is a party to the unauthorized taking or using is guilty of a misdemeanor. In Spectrum Health Hosps v Farm Bureau Mut Ins Co of Mich, 492 Mich 503 (2012), the Supreme Court held that any person who takes a vehicle contrary to a provision of the Michigan Penal Code (including MCL 750.414) has taken the vehicle unlawfully for purposes of MCL 500.3113(a). Unlike Spectrum Health, however, this case did not involve the taking of a vehicle against the express prohibition of the vehicle’s owner. Rather, Rambin presented evidence that in his opinion showed that the person who gave him permission to take the motorcycle was the rightful owner. 

2. Allstate maintained that Rambin’s good faith was legally irrelevant because MCL 750.414 is a strict-liability crime and that absent express consent from the actual owner for the taking, Rambin was barred from recovering PIP benefits. Strict-liability offenses, however, are generally disfavored. Courts will infer an element of criminal intent when an offense is silent regarding mens rea unless the statute contains an express or implied indication that the Legislature intended the imposition of strict criminal liability. Further, the presumption in favor of a criminal intent or mens rea requirement applies to each element of a statutory crime. 

3. MCL 750.414 expressly precludes the necessity of having an intent to steal. Accordingly, while the statute prohibits the unauthorized use or taking of a motor vehicle, it does not require showing that the perpetrator intended to permanently deprive the owner of the vehicle. Although the Legislature expressly eliminated this common-law element of larceny crimes, however, it did not dispense with mens rea altogether. MCL 750.414 is not a strict- liability offense. While it is clear that an intent to steal is not an element of the offense, MCL 750.414 nonetheless requires an intent to take without authority or an intent to use without authority. 

4. For a person to take personal property without the authority of the actual owner, there must be some evidence to support the proposition that the person from whom he or she received the property did not have the right to control or command the property. Rambin was entitled to present evidence to establish that because he did not knowingly lack authority to take the motorcycle in light of his belief that he had authority to do so, he did not run afoul of MCL 750.414 and, therefore, did not unlawfully take the motorcycle under MCL 500.3113(a). Accordingly, the Court of Appeals was correct insofar as it held that Rambin would be entitled to PIP benefits if the evidence established that he did not know the motorcycle was stolen. 

5. The Court of Appeals, however, incorrectly concluded that Rambin was entitled to a finding as a matter of law that he did not take the motorcycle unlawfully given the substantial circumstantial evidence to the contrary. The Court of Appeals improperly made findings in regard to facts in this case that were still disputed.