Michigan Court Of Appeals Holds Moving Violation Causing Injury Is A Strict Liability Crime

On June 4, 2015, the Michigan Court of Appeals held in a criminal case that the misdemeanor crime of Moving Violation Causing Serious Impairment of Body Function is a strict liability crime and is also constitutional.

In People v Pace, Docket No. 322808, the Michigan Court of Appeals addressed the issue of whether the prosecution must prove that defendant was negligent in the operation of his motor vehicle in addition to the elements of proving that a moving violation occurred and that the victim suffered serious impairment of body function as a result of the violation.

The Court first recited the facts of the case.

The basic facts of this case are not in dispute. On June 5, 2013, as Michael John Bly, walked across Church Street in Ann Arbor along a pedestrian crosswalk, defendant made a left- hand turn onto Church Street, striking Bly with his vehicle in the process. As a result of the collision, Bly suffered head trauma that left him permanently disabled. Defendant was charged with the misdemeanor offense of committing a moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function pursuant to MCL 257.601d(2).

Prior to trial, defendant moved the district court for a jury instruction requiring the prosecution to prove, as an element of the charged offense, that defendant was negligent in the operation of his vehicle. The prosecution argued, in contrast, that the applicable jury instruction, M Crim JI 15.19, provides that to prove the charge of committing a moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function, the prosecution is required to prove only (1) that the defendant committed a moving violation; and (2) that the defendant’s operation of the vehicle caused a serious impairment of a body function to the victim. According to the prosecution, this standard jury instruction accurately stated the law and that there was no requirement that the prosecution also prove that defendant was negligent in his actions. The district court granted defendant’s motion, citing People v Tombs, 472 Mich 446; 697 NW2d 494 (2005) and reasoning that the Legislature did not expressly indicate that it sought to dispense with negligence as an element of the offense.

The prosecution subsequently filed an application for leave to appeal the district court’s order in the Washtenaw Circuit Court, which denied the application. We granted the prosecution’s application for leave to appeal the Washtenaw Circuit Court’s denial of its application. In addition to the issue of whether negligence is an element of the offense of committing a moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function, this Court directed the parties to address two additional issues: “(1) if negligence is not an element of committing a moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function, MCL 257.601d(2), then what, if any, mens rea is required for conviction of this offense; and (2) if no mens rea is required, is the statute constitutional?” People v Pace, unpublished order of the Court of Appeals, entered October 7, 2014 (Docket No. 322808).

The Court's analysis of whether negligence is an element of Moving Violation Causing Serious Impairment of Body Function followed.

[I]t may be inferred from the Legislature’s use of the term “moving violation,” without any reference to a mens rea requirement, that it intended to dispense with the criminal intent element and make committing a moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function a strict liability offense. The Legislature is presumed to be aware of and to legislate in harmony with existing jurisprudence. People v Cash, 419 Mich 230, 241; 351 NW2d 822 (1984). The requirement that a defendant have committed a moving violation in order to be charged with and convicted of a violation of MCL 257.601d clearly indicates that public welfare is at issue. “[I]it is the motorist's duty in the use and operation of his automobile to exercise ordinary and reasonable care and caution, that is, that degree of care and caution which an ordinarily careful and prudent person would exercise under the same or similar circumstances.” Zarzecki v Hatch, 347 Mich 138, 141; 79 NW2d 605 (1956). The commission of a moving violation indicates that the motorist failed to do so, regardless of intent, and, as previously indicated, the violation of a traffic law is typically a strict-liability offense. Nasir, 255 Mich App at 42. Thus, MCL 257.601d is strict liability offense.

Because the Legislature impliedly intended to make MCL 257.601d a strict liability offense, the prosecution is required to prove solely (1) the commission of a moving violation; (2) another person suffered a serious impairment of a body function; and (3) a causal link between the bodily injury and the moving violation, i.e., factual and proximate causation. The prosecution is not required to also prove that defendant operated his vehicle in a negligent manner, and the trial court erred in so concluding.

After reaching the conclusion that the prosecution is not required to prove negligence, we next consider whether MCL 257.601d is constitutional. Constitutional questions are generally reviewed de novo by this Court. People v Conat, 238 Mich App 134, 144; 605 NW2d 49 (1999).

“[T]he United States Supreme Court has recognized as a general matter that the constitution does not preclude the enactment of even strict liability criminal statutes.” People v Quinn, 440 Mich 178, 185; 487 NW2d 194 (1992), citing Lambert v California, 355 US 225; 78 S Ct 240; 2 L Ed 2d 228 (1957). See also Janes, 302 Mich App at 42, citing Quinn, 440 Mich at 188 (“Our Supreme Court has recognized that the Legislature can constitutionally enact offenses that impose criminal liability without regard to fault.”). This is especially the case with public welfare regulations, as previously discussed. There does not appear to be a well-settled test for determining when such a strict liability crime offends due process. However, this Court has previously stated that “ ‘[t]he elimination of the element of criminal intent does not violate the due process clause where (1) the penalty is relatively small, and (2) where conviction does not gravely besmirch.’ ” People v Olson, 181 Mich App 348, 352; 448 NW2d 845 (1989), quoting United States v Wulff, 758 F 2d 1121, 1125 (CA 6, 1985). See also Lardie, 452 Mich at 255 (noting that penalties for public welfare offenses are generally “relatively small” and do no “grave damage to an offender’s reputation”).

There is no question that the Legislature has the constitutional authority to enact MCL 257.601d as a strict liability offense concerning public welfare. Lambert, 355 US 225; Quinn, 440 Mich at 188; Janes, 302 Mich App at 42. We are satisfied that imposing strict liability for the offense of committing a moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function does not offend due process. First, the offense is a misdemeanor; that is, despite the severe harm that such an offense inflicts upon the victim, it is punishable only by imprisonment for not more than 93 days and/or a fine of not more than $500. The penalty is thus relatively small. See People v Adams, 262 Mich App 89, 98-99; 683 NW2d 729 (2004) (upholding a strict liability crime of failing to pay child support despite a potential four-year jail term); People v Motor City Hosp & Surgical Supply, Inc, 227 Mich App 209, 210; 575 NW2d 95 (1997) (upholding a strict liability crime despite a potential punishment of four years’ imprisonment and a $30,000 fine). Second, because the crime is a misdemeanor only, it is far less likely to “besmirch” the defendant. Cf Wulff, 758 F 2d at 1125 (“[A] felony conviction irreparably damages one’s reputation[.]”). Thus, we conclude that it does not offend due process to hold individuals strictly liable for committing moving violations that cause serious impairment to a body function in another individual.

In sum, MCL 257.601d imposes strict liability upon a motorist who commits a moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function to another person and the statute is constitutional. The prosecution is not required to prove that defendant operated his vehicle in a negligent manner, and the trial court erred in so concluding.