People v. Beck

Decision Date29 July 2019
Docket NumberDocket No. 152934
Citation504 Mich. 605,939 N.W.2d 213
Parties PEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Eric Lamontee BECK, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

McCormack, C.J.

In this case, we consider whether a sentencing judge can sentence a defendant for a crime of which the defendant was acquitted.

That the question seems odd foreshadows its answer. But to explain the question first: Once a jury acquits a defendant of a given crime, may the judge, notwithstanding that acquittal, take the same alleged crime into consideration when sentencing the defendant for another crime of which the defendant was convicted? Such a possibility presents itself when a defendant is charged with multiple crimes. The jury speaks, convicting on some charges and acquitting on others. At sentencing for the former, a judge might seek to increase the defendant’s sentence (under the facts of this case, severely increase, though we consider the question in principle) because the judge believes that the defendant really committed one or more of the crimes on which the jury acquitted.

Probably committed, that is: A judge in such circumstances might reason that although the jury acquitted on some charges, the jury acquitted because the state failed to prove guilt on those charges beyond a reasonable doubt. But the jury might have thought it was somewhat likely the defendant committed them. Or the judge, presiding over the trial, might reach that conclusion. And so during sentencing, when a judge may consider the defendant’s uncharged bad acts under a lower standard—a mere preponderance of the evidence—the judge might impose a sentence reflecting both the crimes on which the jury convicted, and also those on which the jury acquitted but which the judge finds the defendant more likely than not did anyway. Is that permissible?

We hold that the answer is no. Once acquitted of a given crime, it violates due process to sentence the defendant as if he committed that very same crime.

Because the trial court in this case relied at least in part on acquitted conduct1 when imposing sentence for the defendant’s conviction of being a felon in possession of a firearm, we reverse the Court of Appeals, vacate that sentence, and remand the case to the Saginaw Circuit Court for resentencing.2


The defendant was jury-convicted as a fourth-offense habitual offender of being a felon in possession of a firearm (felon-in-possession) and carrying a firearm during the commission of a felony (felony-firearm), second offense, but acquitted of open murder, carrying a firearm with unlawful intent, and two additional counts of felony-firearm attendant to those charges. The applicable guidelines range for the felon-in-possession conviction was 22 to 76 months, but the court imposed a sentence of 240 to 400 months (20 to 33? years), to run consecutively to the mandatory five-year term for second-offense felony-firearm. The court explained its reasons for the sentence imposed as, among other things, its finding by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant committed the murder of which the jury acquitted him. The court stated (emphasis added):

With respect to that charge the Court does find that there are compelling reasons to go over the guidelines. The Court believes that ... to sentence within the guidelines would not be proportionate to the seriousness of the defendant’s conduct or the seriousness of his criminal history. And for that reason the Court is going to go over the guidelines in setting a sentence that is, in fact, proportionate to those things.
In addition to that, the maximum—when you reach the maximum on the guidelines in this case it’s at 75 points, this is way over that at 125 points. That is another reason the Court may, and will go over the guidelines in this case.
This gentleman has a prior murder conviction on his record that he pled guilty to for which he served 13 years in prison. That was in 1991. He was discharged from parole in 2007. In 2010, only three years later, he pled no contest to a firearms, possession by a felon for which he received 252 days in jail. And then this charge, offense date was June 11, 2013 where, again, he is in possession of a firearm at a murder scene.
The testimony in this case by one of the witnesses who could not identify him was that a man approached the victim with a gun. She saw a muzzle flash and the victim fell to the ground and the perpetrator ran off.
The other witness, who was not alive at the time of the trial, and was barely alive at the time of the prelim, identified this gentleman as the person who approached the victim with the gun. Gave a positive identification. Indicated she saw the gun. Then her story wavered as far as whether she saw the shooting or whether she was in her kitchen at the time of the shooting. I think the inconsistency, and where she was at the time of the shooting, as well as her not being in court, affected the jury’s verdict. They could not find, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the homicide. But the Court certainly finds that there is a preponderance of the evidence that he did.
And I am not substituting my opinion for their’s [sic]. I am just bound by a different standard in this matter. And that is the reason for the Court’s finding that, in fact, this gentleman, in my opinion, did kill the victim for no reason other than jealousy. But, at the very minimum, he was the only person seen at the scene with a weapon seconds prior.
Two people hearing a shot, and another lady seeing a shoot[ing] by someone she couldn't identify. And, certainly, provided the weapon. But in the Court’s opinion, he didn't just provide it, he actually was the person who perpetrated the killing. And I do find by a preponderance of the evidence that that has been shown. And I do consider that in going over the guidelines in this matter.
So for the fact that the guidelines don't properly—are so far out of scoring of 125, where 75 is the highest—but, more importantly, the fact that there was a death. And the Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that this gentleman did shoot the victim.

The defendant appealed and challenged his convictions and sentences on multiple grounds, including that the trial court erred by increasing his sentence on the basis of conduct of which he had been acquitted. The Court of Appeals issued an unpublished opinion remanding for further sentencing proceedings (a Crosby remand)3 under People v. Steanhouse , 313 Mich. App. 1, 880 N.W.2d 297 (2015), aff'd in part and rev'd in part by People v. Steanhouse , 500 Mich. 453, 902 N.W.2d 327 (2017). People v. Beck , unpublished per curiam opinion of the Court of Appeals, issued November 17, 2015 (Docket No. 321806). The defendant sought leave to appeal in this Court, which first held his application in abeyance for our decision in Steanhouse .4

People v. Beck , 884 N.W.2d 283 (Mich. 2016). After issuing our decision in Steanhouse , we ordered oral argument on the defendant’s application and directed that it be heard at the same session as oral argument on the prosecution’s application in People v. Dixon-Bey , 501 Mich. 1066, 910 N.W.2d 303 (2018). People v. Beck , 501 Mich. 1065, 1065-1066, 910 N.W.2d 298 (2018).5


The defendant argues that the trial court’s reliance on conduct of which he was acquitted to increase his sentence violates his constitutional rights under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court.6 The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides in part:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation.

The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides in relevant part:

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

As a general matter, the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial in state prosecutions.

Duncan v. Louisiana , 391 U.S. 145, 149, 88 S. Ct. 1444, 20 L. Ed. 2d 491 (1968). And the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process includes "the presumption of innocence—that bedrock ‘axiomatic and elementary’ principle whose ‘enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.’ "

In re Winship , 397 U.S. 358, 363, 90 S. Ct. 1068, 25 L. Ed. 2d 368 (1970), quoting Coffin v. United States , 156 U.S. 432, 453, 15 S. Ct. 394, 39 L. Ed. 481 (1895).

The United States Supreme Court has issued a number of decisions potentially relevant to the issue presented here—whether a sentencing judge may rely on acquitted conduct when sentencing a defendant without violating due process or the right to a jury trial. In the first, McMillan v. Pennsylvania , 477 U.S. 79, 106 S. Ct. 2411, 91 L. Ed. 2d 67 (1986), the Court did not specifically address acquitted conduct. Rather, it considered whether a Pennsylvania statute that allowed sentencing courts to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the person "visibly possessed a firearm" during the commission of the offense, resulting in a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, was constitutional. Id. at 81, 106 S.Ct. 2411. That is, the statute permitted the court to find by a preponderance a fact the jury had not been asked to decide. The Court held that the...

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