Wednesday, July 26, 2017

MSC Overrules 25 Year Old Decision in Felony Firearm Case

The Michigan Supreme Court, in the past few days, has issued a number of opinions related to crimes, criminal procedure and sentencing.  Significantly, the Court overruled a 25-year-old decision regarding the interpretation of the felony firearm statute, when, in People v Dwayne Wilson, Docket No. 154039 (July 25, 2017), the Court held that a defendant may be sentenced as a third offender (mandatory minimum 10 years imprisonment, consecutive to any sentence for the underlying offense) even though his two (2) prior convictions arose out of the same occurrence.  Justice Joan Larsen wrote the unanimous opinion that overruled People v Stewart, 441 Mich 89 (1992).

The trial court, Macomb County Circuit Judge James Biernat, Jr., had ruled that Wilson's two prior convictions for felony firearm from one prior case amounted to two (2) prior convictions for felony firearm and that the Supreme Court's decision in Stewart was no longer good law because it had relied on case law that had subsequently been overruled and the statute did not explicitly mention an exception for single occurrence convictions.  The Court of Appeals reversed in an unpublished per curium opinion.

The reasoning revolved primarily around strict adherence to the language of the felony firearm statute which provides no explicit exception for prior convictions that arise out of the same occurrence.  The statute mandates a consecutive sentence for a first offense (2 years), a second offense (5 years) and a third or subsequent offense (10 years).  The legislature excepted felony firearm convictions for a number of offenses, i.e., a defendant may not be convicted of CCW and felony firearm, but did not make an exception as to punishment for multiple prior convictions arising from a single occurrence.  The Supreme Court found the absence of an exception significant, and stated "the text contains no similar exception for convictions arising out of the same criminal incident, and the presence of one limitation on the kinds of convictions that are to be counted strongly suggests the absence of others unstated."

In regard to the stare decisis issue, the Court determined that the Stewart case had been wrongly decided, that the case relied upon by Stewart had previously been overruled and that numerous opinions had noted the shaky ground upon which Stewart stood.  "There is no separate-incidents requirement in either the habitual-offender or felony-firearm statutes, and the Supreme Court erred in Stewart by judicially engrafting a separate-incidents test onto the unambiguous statutory language of the felony-firearm statute. Stewart was wrongly decided." Therefore, the Court felt justified in overruling Stewart.

The prosecution's appeal was handled by APA Emil Semaan.  Wilson was represented by Peter Van Hoek of the State Appellate Defenders Office.