People v. Babcock

Decision Date31 July 2003
Docket NumberDocket No. 121310, Calendar No. 6.
Citation469 Mich. 247,666 N.W.2d 231
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Gerald Lee BABCOCK, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Michael A. Cox, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, John G. McBain, Prosecuting Attorney, and Jerrold Schrotenboer, Chief Appellate Attorney, Jackson, MI, for the people.

Bruce A. Barton, Jackson, MI, for the defendant-appellee.

Jacqueline J. McCann, Detroit, MI, for the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan.



We granted leave to appeal in this case to consider whether the trial court articulated a substantial and compelling reason, as required under M.C.L. § 769.34(3), to justify its downward departure from the statutory sentencing guidelines. The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in departing from the guidelines and, thus, affirmed defendant's sentence. The Court of Appeals concluded that some of the trial court's reasons for departing from the statutory sentencing guidelines were not objective and verifiable and, therefore, not substantial and compelling. Because the Court of Appeals did not determine whether the trial court would have departed, and would have departed to the same degree, had it not relied on these improper factors, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and remand this case to the Court of Appeals for further consideration pursuant to this opinion.


Defendant pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and, in exchange, the prosecutor dismissed the single original charge of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Although the statutory sentencing guidelines called for a minimum range of thirty-six to seventyone months, the trial court sentenced defendant to three years' probation and one year in jail; however, all but sixty days of defendant's jail term were suspended. The trial court's reasons for departing from the guidelines consisted of the following: (1) defendant had no prior criminal record, (2) the crime involved a family member, (3) a three-year minimum was too "harsh," and (4) treatment outside a prison environment was more likely to rehabilitate defendant. In a published decision (Babcock I,) the Court of Appeals vacated defendant's sentence, having concluded that the trial court's reasons for the departure were not substantial and compelling.1 On remand, the trial court again sentenced defendant to probation and a suspended jail term. The trial court articulated additional reasons for the downward departure, including the following: (1) the probation officer recommended probation, rather than a prison term; (2) defendant's trial counsel, in an affidavit, recommended against a prison term; (3) a great portion of the victim's emotional harm was caused by defendant's uncle who abused her and from separation from defendant's grandmother; (4) letters from defendant's brother's special-education teacher and attorney indicated that defendant's brother is severely disabled because of cerebral palsy and mental retardation and that defendant is his brother's primary caregiver; (5) a letter from defendant's physician indicated that defendant suffers from herniated discs; and, finally, (6) the fact that defendant's uncle, who has a normal intelligence level, played a much greater role in harming the victim than did defendant, who has a "borderline-to-normal" intelligence level. After remand, in a published decision (Babcock II), the Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence, having concluded that, although some factors cited by the trial court were not objective and verifiable, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in departing from the guidelines.2 We granted the prosecutor's application for leave to appeal.3


This case presents an issue of statutory interpretation, i.e., the interpretation of the statutory sentencing guidelines, M.C.L. § 769.34, which we review de novo. Veenstra v. Washtenaw Country Club, 466 Mich. 155, 159, 645 N.W.2d 643 (2002).


In 1983, this Court concluded that an appellate court has the authority to review a trial court's exercise of discretion in sentencing. People v. Coles, 417 Mich. 523, 550, 339 N.W.2d 440 (1983). At the time Coles was decided, there were no sentencing guidelines; instead, there were merely statutory minimums and maximums for certain offenses, and a trial court could sentence a convicted person to any period within this statutory range.4 In Coles, this Court concluded that the appellate court could review a trial court's selection of a sentence within the statutory minimum and maximum; however, the appellate court could "afford relief to the defendant only if the appellate court finds that the trial court, in imposing the sentence, abused its discretion to the extent that it shocks the conscience of the appellate court." Id.

In 1983, this Court crafted judicial sentencing guidelines and promulgated these guidelines by administrative order.5 As this Court explained in People v. Hegwood, 465 Mich. 432, 438, 636 N.W.2d 127 (2001):

This Court's sentencing guidelines were "mandatory" only in the sense that the sentencing court was obliged to follow the procedure of "scoring" a case on the basis of the circumstances of the offense and the offender, and articulate the basis for any departure from the recommended sentence range yielded by this scoring. However, because the recommended ranges found in the judicial guidelines were not the product of legislative action, a sentencing judge was not necessarily obliged to impose a sentence within those ranges.

In 1990, this Court overruled the Coles "shocks the conscience" test and adopted in its place the "principle of proportionality" test, "which requires sentences imposed by the trial court to be proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the offense and the offender." People v. Milbourn, 435 Mich. 630, 636, 461 N.W.2d 1 (1990). More specifically, the Court stated that "the Legislature, in setting a range of allowable punishments for a single felony, intended persons whose conduct is more harmful and who have more serious prior criminal records to receive greater punishment than those whose criminal behavior and prior record are less threatening to society." Id. at 651, 461 N.W.2d 1.

In 1998, the Legislature enacted statutory sentencing guidelines, M.C.L. § 777.1 et seq.6 As this Court in Hegwood, supra at 439, 636 N.W.2d 127, explained:

Because the new guidelines are the product of legislative enactment, a judge's discretion to depart from the range stated in the legislative guidelines is limited to those circumstances in which such a departure is allowed by the Legislature.

Under the statutory sentencing guidelines, a departure is only allowed by the Legislature if there is a "substantial and compelling reason" for doing so.7 MCL 769.34(3).8 Accordingly, since the enactment of the statutory sentencing guidelines, the role of the trial court has necessarily been altered. Before the enactment of these guidelines, the trial court was required to choose a sentence within the statutory minimum and maximum that was "proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the offense and the offender." Milbourn, supra at 636, 461 N.W.2d 1. Following the enactment of these guidelines, the trial court is required to choose a sentence within the guidelines range, unless there is a "substantial and compelling" reason for departing from this range.9 Consequently, and as discussed more fully below, the role of the Court of Appeals has also changed from reviewing the trial court's sentencing decision for "proportionality" to reviewing the trial court's sentencing decision to determine, first, whether it is within the appropriate guidelines range and, second, if it is not, whether the trial court has articulated a "substantial and compelling" reason for departing from such range.10


The statutory sentencing guidelines, provide in pertinent part:

A court may depart from the appropriate sentence range established under the sentencing guidelines set forth in [MCL 777.1 et seq.] if the court has a substantial and compelling reason for that departure and states on the record the reasons for departure. [MCL 769.34(3).]

In People v. Fields, 448 Mich. 58, 528 N.W.2d 176 (1995), this Court defined "substantial and compelling reasons" in the context of departures from mandatory minimum sentences in controlled-substance cases.11 This Court stated that "only those factors that are objective and verifiable may be used to judge whether substantial and compelling reasons exist...." Id. at 62, 528 N.W.2d 176. We further stated that "the reasons justifying departure should `keenly' or `irresistibly' grab our attention, and we should recognize them as being `of considerable worth' in deciding the length of a sentence." Id. at 67, 528 N.W.2d 176. Lastly, we stated, "the Legislature intended `substantial and compelling reasons' to exist only in exceptional cases." Id. at 68, 528 N.W.2d 176.

"A legal term of art is a technical word or phrase that has acquired a particular and appropriate meaning in the law. It is, in a statute, to be construed and understood according to such meaning." People v. Law, 459 Mich. 419, 425 n. 8, 591 N.W.2d 20 (1999), citing M.C.L. § 8.3a, which provides, "technical words and phrases, and such as may have acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law, shall be construed and understood according to such peculiar and appropriate meaning." The phrase "substantial and compelling reason" has, in our judgment, acquired a peculiar and appropriate meaning in the law and, thus, it must be construed according to such meaning. That is, a "substantial and...

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