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147735 - People v Jones (Thabo)

The People of the State of Michigan,
 
Timothy A. Baughman
 
Plaintiff-Appellant,
 
v
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
 
 
(Wayne – Allen, D.)
 
Thabo Jones,
 
James G. Howarth
 
Defendant-Appellee.
 

Summary

Defendant Thabo Jones was charged with reckless driving causing death, in violation of MCL 257.626(4), a fifteen-year felony.  Witnesses said that Jones was driving at an excessive speed, weaving in and out of traffic, and using the center lane to pass other cars.  He struck another vehicle, causing the driver’s death.  MCL 257.626(5) states that, when a defendant is charged with reckless driving causing death, the jury cannot be instructed on the lesser misdemeanor offense of committing a moving violation causing death, MCL 257.601d.  Jones argued that this part of the statute was unconstitutional, and asked the trial court to instruct the jury on the lesser offense.  The trial court granted the motion, ruling that subsection (5) of the reckless driving statute violated the doctrine of separation of powers.
 
The prosecutor filed an application for leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals, which granted leave to appeal.  In a split, published opinion, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling.  The majority emphasized that, as a general rule, a criminal jury may acquit a defendant of a principal charge and find him guilty of a lesser offense.  This concept has been limited, in Michigan, to necessarily included lesser offenses, see People v Nyx, 479 Mich 112, 118-121 (2007).  The statute at issue, MCL 257.626(5), does not impose any restriction on a judge or jury from finding a defendant guilty of the lesser offense; it only prohibits instructing the jury as to the lesser offense.  The Court of Appeals panel emphasized that it is the duty of the courts to properly instruct the jury on the law, see MCL 768.29 and MCR 6.414(F); an improperly instructed jury cannot fulfill its duty.  The majority noted that the prosecutor conceded that the offense of committing a moving violation causing death was a necessarily included lesser offense of reckless driving causing death.  Given this, held the appeals court, it is a violation of the principle of separation of powers for the Legislature to forbid the courts to instruct the jury as to that lesser offense.  In the alternative, the majority held that the statute unconstitutionally infringed upon a defendant’s right to a properly instructed jury.
 
The dissenting Court of Appeals judge would have reversed the trial court’s ruling.  The dissenter concluded that, in enacting MCL 257.626(5), and limiting the jury’s consideration of a lesser included offense, the Legislature addressed a matter of substantive law and therefore acted within its policy-making authority.  The intent of the Legislature in enacting the statute was to preclude either a judge or a jury from convicting a defendant charged with reckless driving causing death of the lesser misdemeanor offense.
 
The prosecutor filed an application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court, which granted the application in an order dated November 27, 2013.  The order stated:  “The parties shall include among the issues to be briefed:  (1) whether a legislative provision barring consideration of a necessarily included lesser offense violates the separation of powers doctrine, Const 1963, art 3, § 2; (2) whether MCL 257.626(5) violates a defendant’s right to a jury trial by foreclosing a jury instruction on a lesser offense; and (3) whether MCL 257.601d is a necessarily included lesser offense of MCL 257.626(4).”