Syllabus: Ottawa County petition signature case

The following is the Syllabus issued by the Michigan Supreme Court in the Ottawa County base, People v. Hall. To read the full opinion or to get more information, visit http://courts.mi.gov/Courts/MichiganSupremeCourt/oral-arguments/2015-2016/Pages/150677.aspx?utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=31159972 and click on the appropriate link.

Michigan Supreme Court, Lansing, Michigan Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr.

Justices:

Stephen J. Markman

Brian K. Zahra

Bridget M. McCormack

David F. Viviano

Richard H. Bernstein

Joan L. Larsen

Reporter of Decisions:

Corbin R. Davis

This syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader.

PEOPLE v HALL

Docket  No.  150677.   

Argued  on  application  for  leave  to  appeal  January 13,  2016. 

Decided June 29, 2016.

Brandon M. Hall was charged in the 58th District Court with 10 felony counts of forgery under MCL 168.937 after stipulating to having filled in false names, addresses, and signatures on petitions  to  nominate  a  prospective  judicial  candidate.   
The  prosecutor  moved  to  bind  the  case  over to the Ottawa Circuit Court for trial.  Defendant objected, arguing that the facts supported  only  misdemeanor  charges  under  MCL  168.544c.    The  district  court,  Bradley  S.  Knoll,  C.J., denied the motion for bindover on the felony charges but ruled that there was probable cause to proceed  to  trial  on  10  misdemeanor  counts  under  MCL  168.544c(8),  which  prohibits  an  individual  from  signing  a  petition with  a  name  other  than  his  or  her  own.   On  appeal  by  the   prosecution, the circuit court, Jon A. Van Allsburg, J., affirmed, ruling that MCL 168.544c and MCL  168.937  conflicted  and  that MCL  168.544c  was  controlling  because  MCL  168.544c  was the more recent and specific statute governing defendant’s  conduct.    The  Court  of  Appeals,  BORRELLO, P.J., and SERVITTO and SHAPIRO, JJ., affirmed in an unpublished opinion per curiam issued October 23, 2014 (Docket No. 321045), and the prosecutor appealed.  The Supreme Court ordered  and  heard  oral  argument  on  whether  to  grant  the application  or  take  other  peremptory  action.  497 Mich 1023 (2015).

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

The  lower  courts  erred  by  concluding  that  MCL  168.544c  and  MCL  168.937  conflict.  When construed as  a  substantive  offense,  MCL  168.937  prohibits  forgery,  or  the  making  of  a  false  document  under  the  Michigan  Election  Law  with  the  intent  to  defraud,  and  punishes  forgery  as  a  felony.    MCL  168.544c,  a  misdemeanor  offense,  proscribes  the  specific  act  of  signing another’s name to a nominating petition and does not require proof of a specific intent to defraud.  If proved, the facts as alleged in this case establish that defendant violated both statutes. 

Prosecuting defendant for felonies committed in violation of MCL 168.937 was barred neither by tie-breaking canons of statutory interpretation nor principles of due process.

1.    The prosecution did not abuse its discretion by charing defendant with the felony offense  of  forgery  under  MCL  168.937 rather  than  the  misdemeanor  offense  of  falsifying  nominating petitions under MCL 168.544c.  Prosecutors have broad discretion in deciding under which statute they will prosecute a defendant, even if more than one statute is applicable.  Both MCL 168.937 and MCL 168.544c can be given full effect without a conflict.   Given the Court of Appeals’ unchallenged  holding  that  MCL  168.937  is  a  substantive  offense,  MCL  168.937incorporates the common-law definition of forgery and therefore requires proof of specific intent to  defraud. MCL  168.544c(8)  does  not require  proof  of  specific  intent.   
These  distinct statutes are  not  ambiguous,  and  the  lower  courts  accordingly  erred  by  applying tie-breaking  canons  of  statutory interpretation, including the presumption that the more recent and more specific of two seemingly conflicting  statutes  read in  pari  materiais  controlling,  as  well  as  the rule  of  lenity.    The  codification  of  additional  regulations  and  sanctions  in MCL  168.544c,  absent  language  suggesting  the  two  statutes  may  not  apply  concurrently, demonstrated  a  legislative  intent  to  complement rather than supplant MCL 168.937.  MCL 168.937 explicitly contemplates that the Legislature might specify different or additional punishment by providing for felony punishment “unless  herein  otherwise  provided.”

The inclusion of the phrase “unless herein otherwise provided in MCL 168.937 did not require the conclusion that MCL 168.544c was an exception to felony punishment for election law forgery.  MCL 168.544c provides that the crime of signing another’s  name  to  a  nominating  petition  will  be  punished  as  a  misdemeanor  absent  proof  of specific intent to defraud; it does not provide that it applies to the exclusion of other provisions of the Michigan Election Law. 

2.  Defendant’s prosecution under MCL 168.937 did not violate fundamental elements of fairness because the plain text of that statute informed him he could be subject to felony charges if  he  committed  election  law  forgery.Both  MCL  168.937  and  MCL  168.544c  are  fully  enforceable  on  their  own  terms.    Each  unambiguously  specifies  the  conduct  prohibited  and  the punishment  that  flows  from  that  conduct.    Although  the  warning  language  on  the  nominating  petitions conveyed to defendant that he would be guilty of a misdemeanor if he knowingly made a false statement in the circulator’s certificate, a second warning stated that someone who signs a name other than his or her own is violating the provisions of the Michigan election law, and that warning did not prescribe the penalty as a misdemeanor.

Court  of  Appeals  judgment  reversed;  case  remanded  to  the  district court for further proceedings.
 

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