Michigan Supreme Court Holds Criminal Defendants Not Required to Pay for Courthouse Operating Expenses

On June 18th, 2014, the Michigan Supreme Court held in a criminal case that criminal defendants do not have to pay for the costs of courthouse operations as part of their fines and costs imposed following a conviction.

In People v Cunningham, Docket No. 147437, the Michigan Supreme Court addressed an appeal from a trial court order imposing an additional $1,000.00 in costs at sentencing on a criminal defendant who earlier pleaded guilty in a drug case.

From the opinion's syllabus:

Frederick L. Cunningham pleaded guilty in the Allegan Circuit Court to obtaining a controlled substance by fraud in violation of MCL 333.7407(1)(c) and was sentenced to 12 to 48 months’ imprisonment. In addition, defendant was ordered to pay $130 for the crime victim’s rights assessment, $68 in minimum state costs, and $1,000 in unspecified court costs. Defendant moved to reduce or vacate the amount of court costs imposed to reflect the amount of actual costs incurred by the circuit court in connection with defendant’s case. The court, Margaret Z. Bakker, J., denied the motion. The Court of Appeals, MARKEY, P.J., MURPHY, C.J., and BOONSTRA, J., remanded the case to the circuit court in an unpublished order issued October 2, 2012 (Docket No. 309277), to determine the reasonable costs for felony cases in Allegan Circuit Court in light of People v Sanders, 296 Mich App 710 (2012). On remand, the circuit court ruled that a reasonable relationship existed between the court costs imposed and the actual court costs on the basis of testimony that the average cost per criminal case in the circuit court was $1,238.48. After remand, the Court of Appeals, FITZGERALD, P.J., and O’CONNELL, J. (SHAPIRO, J., dissenting), relying on Sanders, affirmed the circuit court’s order. 301 Mich App 218 (2013). The Supreme Court granted defendant’s application for leave to appeal. 495 Mich 897 (2013).

In a unanimous opinion by Justice MARKMAN, the Supreme Court held:

MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) does not provide courts with the independent authority to impose costs upon criminal defendants. Rather, it gives courts the authority to impose only those costs that the Legislature has separately authorized by statute. Therefore, the circuit court erred when it relied on MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) as independent authority to impose $1,000 in court costs, and the Court of Appeals erred as well by affirming the imposition of such costs. Sanders and other Court of Appeals decisions were overruled to the extent they were inconsistent with this opinion.

1. A court may impose costs in a criminal case only if those costs are authorized by statute. The statute under which defendant was convicted, MCL 333.7407, did not provide courts with the authority to impose costs. While MCL 769.1k(1) gives courts the authority to impose certain financial obligations on a defendant, including any cost in addition to the minimum state cost, the fact that the Legislature proceeded beyond its reference to “any cost” to specify with particularity that courts may require criminal defendants to pay certain other costs suggested strongly that the Legislature did not intend MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) to provide courts with the independent authority to impose any cost. Further, interpreting MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) as providing courts with the independent authority to impose “any cost” would essentially render nugatory, in violation of the Court’s duty to harmonize and reconcile related statutes, the cost provisions within other statutes in effect when MCL 769.1k was enacted that provided courts with the authority to impose specific costs for certain offenses. The Legislature’s decision to continue to enact provisions providing courts with authority to impose specific costs for certain offenses also suggested strongly that it did not intend MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) to provide courts with the independent authority to impose “any cost.” Also, a logical outgrowth of holding that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) provided courts with the independent authority to impose any cost would have been that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(i) would have provided courts with the independent authority to impose “any fine,” which would have nullified the provisions within those statutes that expressly fix the amount of fines that courts may impose for certain offenses. For these reasons, MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) did not provide courts with the independent authority to impose any cost; rather, it provided courts with the authority to impose only those costs that the Legislature separately authorized by statute.

2. Because the Legislature did not intend MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(ii) to provide courts with the independent authority to impose any cost, Sanders was overruled to the extent that it was inconsistent with this opinion.

Court of Appeals judgment reversed; circuit court order vacated in part; case remanded for further proceedings.