People Of The State Of Mich. v. Feezel

Decision Date08 June 2010
Docket NumberCalendar No. 8.,Docket No. 138031.
Citation486 Mich. 184,783 N.W.2d 67
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee,v.George Evan FEEZEL, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

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Michael A. Cox, Attorney General, B. Eric Restuccia, Solicitor General, Brian L. Mackie, Prosecuting Attorney, and Mark Kneisel, Assistant Prosecuting Attorney, for the people.

Douglas R. Mullkoff and F. Mark Hugger, Ann Arbor, for defendant.

Brian A. Peppler, David S. Leyton, Kym L. Worthy, Donald A. Kuebler, and Timothy A. Baughman for, amici curiae the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan.

John R. Minock and Christine A. Pagac for amici curiae the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan.

Opinion

CAVANAGH, J.

Defendant struck and killed a pedestrian when he was operating his vehicle while intoxicated. A jury convicted defendant of failing to stop at the scene of an accident that resulted in death, MCL 257.617(3), operating while intoxicated (OWI), second offense, MCL 257.625(1), and operating a motor vehicle with the presence of a schedule 1 controlled substance in his body, causing death, MCL 257.625(4) and (8). The Court of Appeals affirmed defendant's convictions. We granted leave to appeal. People v. Feezel, 483 Mich. 1001 (2009).

We hold that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to admit evidence of the victim's intoxication because it was relevant to the element of causation in MCL 257.617(3) and MCL 257.625(4) and (8). We hold that the error resulted in a miscarriage of justice, which therefore requires reversal under MCL 769.26. In addition, defendant's conviction under MCL 257.625(4) and (8) was based on an improper interpretation of MCL 257.625(8) and must be vacated on that ground also. We overrule People v. Derror, 475 Mich. 316, 715 N.W.2d 822 (2006), to the extent that it is inconsistent with this opinion. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals, vacate defendant's convictions under MCL 257.617(3) and MCL 257.625(4) and (8), and remand the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Shortly before 2:00 a.m. on July 21, 2005, defendant struck and killed a pedestrian, Kevin Bass, with his car while traveling on Packard Road in Ypsilanti Township in Washtenaw County. At the time of the accident, Packard Road was an unlit, five-lane road, and it was dark outside and raining heavily. Although there was a sidewalk adjacent to Packard Road, the victim was walking down the middle of the road, with his back to oncoming traffic. The victim was extremely intoxicated and his blood alcohol content (BAC) was at least 0.268 grams per 100 milliliters of blood. Although defendant initially left the scene of the accident after hitting the victim, he later returned while the police were investigating the incident and was arrested. Defendant's BAC at the time of the accident was an estimated 0.091 to 0.115 grams per 100 milliliters. There were also 6 nanograms of 11-carboxy-tetrahydrocannabinol (11-carboxy-THC) per milliliter in defendant's blood. Defendant was charged with several offenses, including OWI causing death; operating a motor vehicle with the presence of a schedule 1 controlled substance in his body, causing death; and failure to stop at the scene of an accident that resulted in death.

Before trial, the prosecutor filed a motion in limine to preclude evidence related to the victim's intoxication. The prosecutor argued that the victim's intoxication was irrelevant to whether defendant caused the accident or caused the victim's death. The trial court agreed and suppressed the evidence.

At trial, testimony revealed that defendant had been at two bars earlier that evening. At one bar, defendant was accompanied by Nicole Norman. Norman testified that she and defendant were at the bar from 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. At no time did she see defendant smoke marijuana, and defendant did not smell of marijuana. Norman further testified that after they left the bar, defendant drove her to Stephanie Meyers's house. After picking up Meyers, defendant dropped Norman and Meyers off at Norman's car.

Meyers testified that she was a passenger in Norman's car and Norman was driving down Packard Road moments before the accident. Meyers stated that it was pouring outside, and she did not see the victim until he was alongside the driver's side door. It was then that Meyers and Norman “snapped [their] necks backwards noticing him....” Meyers also recalled that when Norman saw the victim, she stated, “That man's going to get killed.” In addition, Norman testified that had she been driving in the lane that the victim was walking in, she probably would not have been able to stop her vehicle in time to avoid hitting him. Defendant was traveling down Packard Road moments after Norman's car had passed the victim.

Defendant's accident reconstruction expert found that defendant would have had to have been driving 15 miles per hour to avoid hitting the victim. The prosecution's accident reconstruction expert agreed with defense counsel that if defendant first saw the victim from 30 feet away, then defendant would have had to have been traveling at a rate of 10 to 15 miles per hour to avoid the accident.

Defendant was convicted of failing to stop at the scene of an accident that resulted in death; OWI, second offense; and operating a motor vehicle with the presence of a schedule 1 controlled substance in his body, causing death. Defendant appealed, claiming, in relevant part, that the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to admit evidence of the victim's BAC, that the trial court erred by failing to instruct the jury on proximate cause with respect to the charges of failing to stop at the scene of an accident that resulted in death and operating a motor vehicle with a schedule 1 controlled substance, causing death, and that his conviction of operating a motor vehicle, causing death, based on the presence of 11-carboxy-THC in his body violated his due process rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments of the United States Constitution.

In a divided decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed defendant's convictions. Noting that it is foreseeable for a pedestrian to be in a roadway, the majority reasoned that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by suppressing the evidence of the victim's BAC because the victim's level of “intoxication was not relevant to the critical issue in the proximate cause analysis, which is whether the victim's death was a foreseeable consequence of defendant's conduct of driving while intoxicated....” People v. Feezel, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued November 13, 2008 (Docket No. 276959), p. 12., 2008 WL 4890170 Moreover, the majority concluded that the trial court did not err by failing to reinstruct the jurors on proximate causation because proximate causation is not an element of MCL 257.617(3) and any error related to MCL 257.625(8) was harmless. Finally, the majority concluded that defendant's due process arguments had been rejected by this Court in Derror.

The partial dissent argued that the trial court's deficient instruction with respect to MCL 257.625(8) and its incorrect evidentiary ruling deprived defendant of a substantial defense and thus denied defendant his right to a fair trial. Feezel, unpub. op. at 1, 6 (Saad, C.J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). We granted defendant's application for leave to appeal. 483 Mich. 1001 (2009).

II. ANALYSIS
A. THE CAUSATION ELEMENT

The first issue presented in this appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to admit evidence of the victim's BAC. We hold that, under the facts of this case, the trial court abused its discretion by refusing to admit the evidence because it was relevant to the element of proximate causation in MCL 257.617(3) and MCL 257.625(4) and (8). Moreover, because the error resulted in a miscarriage of justice, it requires reversal under MCL 769.26.

1. STANDARD OF REVIEW

A trial court's decision to either admit or exclude evidence “will not be disturbed absent an abuse of ... discretion.” People v. McDaniel, 469 Mich. 409, 412, 670 N.W.2d 659 (2003). A trial court abuses its discretion when its decision falls “outside the range of principled outcomes.” People v. Smith, 482 Mich. 292, 300, 754 N.W.2d 284 (2008).

If a reviewing court concludes that a trial court erred by excluding evidence, under MCL 769.26 the verdict cannot be reversed “unless in the opinion of the court, after an examination of the entire cause, it shall affirmatively appear that the error complained of has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.” In examining whether a miscarriage of justice occurred, the relevant inquiry is “the ‘effect the error had or reasonably may be taken to have had upon the jury's decision.’ People v. Straight, 430 Mich. 418, 427, 424 N.W.2d 257 (1988), quoting Kotteakos v. United States, 328 U.S. 750, 764, 66 S.Ct. 1239, 90 L.Ed. 1557 (1946). If the evidentiary error is a nonconstitutional, preserved error, then it “is presumed not to be a ground for reversal unless it affirmatively appears that, more probably than not, it was outcome determinative.” People v. Krueger, 466 Mich. 50, 54, 643 N.W.2d 223 (2002). An error is “outcome determinative if it undermined the reliability of the verdict”; in making this determination, this Court should “focus on the nature of the error in light of the weight and strength of the untainted evidence.” Id. (quotation marks and citations omitted).

2. OVERVIEW OF CAUSATION

Three of the offenses with which defendant was charged contain an element of causation, so the prosecution was required to prove causation beyond a reasonable doubt for each offense. The Court of Appeals erred to the extent that it held otherwise. The plain language of the...

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