Michigan Supreme Court: 2019 Year in Review

Michigan Supreme Court: 2019 Year in Review

Acquitted Conduct in Sentencing

In People v Beck, ___ Mich ___ (2019) (2019 WL 3422585), the Supreme Court held that a trial court may not consider acquitted conduct in sentencing a defendant. Defendant was convicted by jury of several offenses, but was acquitted of more serious offenses, including murder. The trial imposed a substantially departing sentence based on its finding by a preponderance of the evidence that defendant had committed the murder of which the jury acquitted him. The Court held that when a jury has specifically determined that the prosecution has not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant engaged in certain conduct, the defendant continues to be presumed innocent, and a trial court’s use of the preponderance-of-the-evidence standard in evaluating that conduct violates due process.  The Court also held, on the other hand, that when a jury has made no findings regarding a defendant’s conduct, no constitutional impediment prevents a sentencing court from punishing the defendant as if the defendant engaged in that conduct using a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard.

Attorney Fees

In In re Foster, 503 Mich 981 (2019), the Court ruled that the trial court abused its discretion by denying trial defense attorney Mitchell Foster’s request for extraordinary fees for time spent consulting with an expert. This continues the appellate court trend of ruling in favor of attorneys seeking reasonable fees in prior cases such as In re Attorney Fees of John W Ujlaky, 498 Mich 890 (2015) (appointed appellate attorney fees) and In re Attorney Fees of Alona Sharon, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued February 27, 2018 (Docket No. 336408) (appointed appellate attorney fees).


In People v Bruner, 504 Mich 881 (2019), the Court ruled that a witness’s preliminary examination testimony admitted in violation of the Confrontation Clause was not harmless error because it was the only evidence that placed a gun in the defendant’s hand.

Deadlocked Jury Instruction

In People v Walker, 504 Mich 267 (2019), the Court held that a trial court’s ad-lib deadlocked-jury instruction was unduly coercive. Along with the ad-lib instruction, the trial court twice instructed the jury to let it know if any jurors were failing to follow the instructions or failing to participate in deliberations. The Court also found that the instruction was given in “a coercive and despotic atmosphere” that “likely persuaded dissenting jurors to abandon their principles,” adding to the prejudice to the defendant.

DNA Evidence

In People v Urban, ___ Mich ___; 931 NW2d 365 (2019), the Court ruled that the language in a laboratory report that “it can be concluded to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that the DNA profile . . . is from the same individual” did not met the requirement that, when DNA evidence is introduced, it must be accompanied by some qualitative or quantitative interpretation. The phrase “to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty” offers neither, the Court concluded. The phrase is a legally created term of art, the Court noted, that is unused by scientists outside of courtrooms.

Experts – Fees

In People v Ulp, ___ Mich ___; 933 NW2d 37 (2019), the Court ruled that the holding of People v Kennedy, 502 Mich 206 (2018), setting forth the standard to be applied when an indigent defendant seeks expert fees at public expense, applies to post-judgement motions, such as Ginther hearings, and not just to pretrial motions.

Experts – Improper Vouching

In the consolidated cases, People v Thorpe and People v Harbison, 504 Mich 230 (2019), the Court ruled that experts improperly vouched for the complainants’ testimony when one testified that children overwhelmingly do not lie when reporting sexual abuse (Thorpe) and the other testified that the complainant had suffered “probable pediatric abuse” without any physical evidence in support (Harbison).
Judicial Impartiality

In People v Swilley, 504 Mich 350 (2019), the Court held that a judge’s questioning of the defendant’s alibi witnesses and an eyewitness during pierced the veil of judicial impartiality and violated defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial. The trial judge improperly: 1) repeatedly challenged the alibi witness’s clear, responsive testimony; 2) asked questions that cast suspicion on the witness’s testimony; 3) asked questions that did not clarify any of the issues; 4) impermissibly drilled into defendant’s alibi defense with questions that were inappropriately designed to assess the believability of the witnesses; and 5) asked questions that were imbalanced in both frequency and manner in the prosecution’s favor. The judge’s curative instructions conflicted with his actions throughout the trial and were not sufficient to overcome the partiality the judge exhibited against defendant.

Motion for Relief from Judgment

In People v Holmes, ___ Mich ___; 934 NW2d 467 (2019), the Supreme Court ruled that the trial court erred by failing to include a concise statement of the reasons for denial of the defendant’s 6.500 motion on the record, as required by MCR 6.504(B)(2). The trial court’s stated basis for denial was that “Defendant has failed to demonstrate good cause and actual prejudice under MCR 6.508(D). Furthermore, defendant’s claims have no merit.” This statement was not enough to meet the requirement of the rule. The Court ruled similarly in People v Finnie, ___ Mich ___; 933 NW2d 43 (2019), where the trial court’s stated basis for denying the defendant’s 6.500 motion was that “the defendant’s motion is without merit.”

In People v Solloway, 503 Mich 1033 (2019), the Court ruled that the trial court erred by, among other errors, denying defendant’s motion as not complying with MCR 6.502(C), when the proper relief for such a defect is either returning the motion to the defendant or adjudicating the motion on the merits notwithstanding the defect.

In People v Gibson, 503 Mich 1034 (2019), the Court ruled the trial court erred when it denied the defendant’s 6.500 motion citing MCR 2.612; under MCR 6.501, a judgment of conviction or sentence that is not subject to appellate review under subchapters 7.200 or 7.300 may be reviewed only in accordance with the provisions of subchapter 6.500.

Mutually Exclusive Verdicts

The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in two cases where the Court of Appeals had held that the verdicts were mutually exclusive (requiring vacation of one of the verdicts). In both cases, the Court found that the verdicts were not actually mutually exclusive. In People v Davis, 503 Mich 984 (2019), the Court ruled that verdicts of aggravated domestic assault and assault GBH stemming from one domestic violence incident were not actually mutually exclusive under the circumstances of the case. In People v Williams, 504 Mich 892 (2019), the Court ruled that verdicts for larceny from a person and larceny in a building were not actually mutually exclusive under the circumstances of that case. In both cases, the Supreme Court commented, “Regardless of whether this state’s jurisprudence recognizes the principle of mutually exclusive verdicts, this case does not present that issue.”

Offense Variables

OV 4

In People v Miller, ___ Mich ___; 932 NW2d 790 (2019), the Court ruled that a victim’s statement that the incident had affected him psychologically to the point that he had contemplated seeking professional help did not support a finding that the victim suffered a serious psychological injury and was insufficient to score OV 4 at 10 points.

OV 10

In People v Blodgett, ___ Mich ___; 933 NW2d 693 (2019), the Court ruled that the trial court erred by failing to state its reasons for scoring OV 10 at 15 points on the record.  

OV 12

In People v Carter, 503 Mich 221 (2019), the Court held three gunshots fired by the defendant through the door of an occupied dwelling were not separate acts from the sentencing offense of AWIGBH and, accordingly, could not be used to score OV 12. The Court noted that the prosecution relied on all three gunshots as evidence of defendant’s intent to inflict great bodily harm.

OV 13

In People v Jackson, 504 Mich 929 (2019), the Court ruled that a prior conviction for attempted resisting and obstructing does not, on its face, establish felonious activity for purposes of scoring OV 13. The Court held that the Court of Appeals erred when it held otherwise in People v Mosher, unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued January 23, 2014 (Docket No. 312996), and thus, the Court of Appeals reliance on Mosher in this case was error.

OV 19

In People v Hall, 503 Mich 989 (2019), the Court remanded the case because the trial court scored 10 points for OV 19 without specifically articulating the basis for the score on the record.

Search & Seizure

In People v Mead, 503 Mich 205 (2019), the Court held that a passenger had standing to challenge the search of his backpack that he was holding on his lap when the vehicle he was riding in was stopped for expired plates. In so holding, the Court overruled People v LaBelle, 478 Mich 891 (2007), which held that a passenger had standing to challenge the stop of a vehicle but did not have standing to challenge the search of a stopped vehicle. In Mead, the Court held that a person, including a passenger in a vehicle, may challenge an alleged Fourth Amendment violation if the person can show under the totality of the circumstances that the person had a legitimate expectation of privacy in the area searched and that the expectation of privacy was one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable, both of which the defendant was able to show as to his backpack.

In People v Hammerlund, ___ Mich ___ (2019) (2019 WL 3312174), the Court held that the defendant did not enter a public place when she reached across the threshold of the front door of her residence to retrieve her ID that a roommate had handed to a police officer who was standing outside the door and her arrest inside her home for a misdemeanor violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court of Appeals had concluded otherwise, relying on United States v Santana, 427 US 38 (1976). The Supreme Court found that, unlike the defendant in Santana, who was standing in her open doorway when officers arrived, defendant was not exposed to public view, speech, hearing, and touch and was never in a public place. Defendant’s expectation of privacy within her home was reasonable, and her action of reaching out over the threshold and retrieving her ID did not relinquish that reasonable expectation. It did not matter how far defendant extended her arm as the focus remains on determining whether a person sought to preserve his or her reasonable expectation of privacy. Defendant’s actions manifested an intent to stay inside, and the officer was aware of that intent.

In People v Duff, ___ Mich ___; 934 NW2d 214 (2019), the Court affirmed that the relevant point in time for assessing whether officers had probable cause to justify an arrest or a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity to justify a stop under Terry v Ohio, 392 US 1 (1968), is the moment that a defendant is first seized.

In People v Towne, ___ Mich ___; 935 NW2d 46 (2019), the Court ruled that police officers violated the defendant’s constitutional rights when they exceeded the proper scope of a knock and talk by approaching and securing defendant’s home without sufficient reason to believe that the subject of the arrest warrant was inside the home.

Upward Departure Sentence

In People v Malone, ___ Mich ___; 934 NW2d 469 (2019), the Court remanded to the trial court for resentencing because the trial court did not justify its upward departure sentence with appropriate reasons and did not consult the applicable guidelines range or take the range into account when imposing a sentence. The Court ruled similarly in People v Moore, ___ Mich ___; 934 NW2d 269 (2019).


In People v McBurrows, 504 Mich 308 (2019), the Supreme Court ruled that venue in Monroe County was improper for the defendant’s trial for delivery of a controlled substance causing death when the defendant sold heroin in Wayne County that was used and caused death in Monroe County. The Court held that a violation of the relevant statute occurs at the place of the delivery of the controlled substance; the fact that consequences are felt elsewhere is immaterial in determining venue, even if those consequences are required elements of the offense. Proper venue was Wayne County because the delivery occurred in Wayne County.

Witness Credibility

In People v Corley, 503 Mich 1004 (2019), the Court ruled that the trial court’s holding that a witness was not credible solely as a result of his past criminal conviction was erroneous. The trial court improperly denied the defendant’s motion for a new trial, which was based on the testimony of a new witness, because of its erroneous credibility ruling regarding the new witness.

By Susan Walsh and John Zevalking