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146212 - People v Harris (James)

The People of the State of Michigan,
Randy L. Price
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
(Saginaw – Borchard, J.)
James Early Harris, Jr.,
Peter Jon Van Hoek


James Early Harris, Jr. was convicted in a jury trial of extortion (MCL 750.213) and other crimes. According to witnesses, Harris became upset when another man, Willie Lee Neal, stopped working on Harris’ truck to get out of the rain and eat a sandwich. The two men had earlier agreed that Neal would fix the truck’s transmission. Harris left, returning a few moments later with a handgun. A neighbor who witnessed the incident testified that Harris did not point the gun at anyone. The neighbor stated:
[Harris] told Mr. Neal that if he didn’t continue to work on his truck and fix
it, he would silence him if he didn’t give him, I want to say it was a hundred
dollars, a hundred dollars back, and Mr. Neal told him if that’s what he wanted to
do, go ahead and do it because he didn’t fear him or a gun because he served the
higher power; if he was to kill him, God would handle this situation, and, his
exact words, and then you wouldn’t – you wouldn’t see this yellow house
anymore because you would spend the rest of your life in prison.
Eventually, Harris placed the handgun on the top step of his porch and resumed talking to Neal, but in a “normal” tone of voice, as Neal continued to eat. Harris later testified that he routinely carried a handgun around his house because family members had been gunned down in that neighborhood.
Harris appealed his convictions, which included carrying a dangerous weapon with unlawful intent, resisting and obstructing a police officer, and three counts of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony-firearm). As to the extortion conviction, Harris argued that the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction on that charge.
But the Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 unpublished decision, disagreed and upheld Harris’ conviction on the extortion and other convictions. A reasonable jury could find that Harris’ actions satisfied the statutory definition of extortion, the majority said.
Under MCL 750.213, “[a]ny person who shall, either orally or by a written or printed communication, maliciously threaten to accuse another of any crime or offense, or shall orally or by any written or printed communication maliciously threaten any injury to the person or property or mother, father, husband, wife or child of another with intent thereby to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatever, or with intent to compel the person so threatened to do or refrain from doing any act against his will . . . .”
In People v Fobb, 145 Mich App 786 (1985), the Court of Appeals had held that, to constitute extortion, the threat must be “a. With intent to extort money or to obtain a pecuniary advantage to the threatener; or b. To compel the person threatened to do, or refrain from doing, an act against his or her will.”
In Harris’ case, there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that these elements were satisfied, the Court of Appeals majority said. “In regard to the first two elements, defendant informed Neal that he was going to ‘silence’ him if Neal did not listen to defendant’s demands and defendant was holding a gun. Thus, a reasonable jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant verbally threatened to injure Neal unless he paid defendant $100 or, in the alternative, Neal fixed defendant’s truck.”
The majority rejected Harris’ argument that there was insufficient evidence that he intended to compel Neal to perform an act against Neal’s will, because Neal had previously agreed to fix the truck. “While Neal may have initially agreed to work on the truck, the evidence establishes that he did not want to work on the truck when defendant ordered him to do so. Not only did Neal communicate his refusal to continue working, he felt so strongly about his decision that he referenced his willingness to face God rather than capitulate to defendant’s demands even at the threat of being ‘silenced’ at gunpoint.”
The majority also rejected Harris’ contention that the act of working on the truck was not of significant value to Neal and so could not support an extortion conviction. “[W]e note that nothing in the statutory language of MCL 750.213 requires the action to be serious in nature or have significant value. In fact, these concepts are inherently subjective, as what is serious or valuable to one person may be of little consequence to another.” Moreover, “[t]he actions defendant ordered in this case were serious and the things he requested from Neal were valuable. While holding a gun, defendant demanded that Neal work on the truck or give defendant $100. Regardless of whether defendant felt he was justified in his demands, the fact remains that defendant’s forcing of Neal to perform work or give defendant $100 was a serious ‘detriment’ to Neal. Thus, we conclude that a reasonable jury could have found beyond a reasonable doubt that all the elements of extortion were proven beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The dissenting judge, who concurred with the majority on other issues in the case, said that there was insufficient evidence that Harris “intended to compel Neal to do something that had serious consequences, against Neal’s will.”
It was undisputed that Neal was willing to fix Harris’ truck – just not immediately, as Harris wanted, the dissent said. “If, as the majority concludes, a truck owner’s angry demand that a mechanic immediately complete a prepaid repair is extortion, I suspect that many Michigan truck owners may be at risk of extortion convictions,” the dissenting judge wrote.
Harris appealed, and in a March 27, 2013 order, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal, “limited to the issue whether the evidence was sufficient to sustain the defendant’s conviction of extortion.”