People v. Johnson

Decision Date08 April 2021
Docket Number351308
Citation336 Mich.App. 688,971 N.W.2d 692
Parties PEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Travis Michael JOHNSON, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

Dana Nessel, Attorney General, Fadwa A. Hammoud, Solicitor General, and Linus Banghart-Linn, Assistant Attorney General, for the people.

State Appellate Defender (by Angeles R. Meneses), for Travis M. Johnson.

Rubina Mustafa and Geoffrey Leonard, for Amicus Curiae Detroit Justice Center.

Before: Shapiro, P.J., and Sawyer and Beckering, JJ.

Beckering, J.

At issue in this criminal appeal is the constitutionality of MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii ). MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii ) permits a trial court to impose court costs on a convicted defendant that are reasonably related to the actual costs incurred in processing a criminal case. This statute has been the subject of much scrutiny of late, both in our caselaw and by task forces and organizations seeking to ensure that our judicial system runs fairly and equitably, especially for our most economically vulnerable citizens and with respect to potential pressures placed on judges by local court funding sources. Defendant Travis Michael Johnson, whose case is before us on delayed leave granted,1 raises a facial challenge to MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii ), claiming it deprives criminal defendants of their due-process right to an impartial decision-maker and violates separation-of-powers principles. While we leave open the question whether a successful as-applied challenge could be made under certain presenting circumstances, in answer to the only legal questions squarely before us, we disagree that the statute is facially unconstitutional.

I. BASIC FACTS

Defendant pleaded guilty to resisting or obstructing a police officer, MCL 750.81d(1). The trial court placed him on probation and ordered a one-year delayed sentence. At a subsequent probation-violation hearing, defendant pleaded no contest to aggravated domestic violence, second offense, MCL 750.81a(3), and interference with electronic communications, MCL 750.540(5)(a). The trial court revoked defendant's delayed sentence and sentenced him to serve 138 days in jail for resisting or obstructing a police officer and 138 days in jail for interference with electronic communications, with 138 days of jailtime credit, and 13 months to 5 years’ imprisonment for aggravated domestic violence. The court also assessed $600 in court costs in each lower-court file, for a total of $1,200.

II. DISCUSSION

We review de novo constitutional issues and matters involving statutory interpretation. People v. Brown , 330 Mich. App. 223, 229, 946 N.W.2d 852 (2019). A statute challenged on constitutional grounds "is presumed to be constitutional and will be construed as such unless its unconstitutionality is clearly apparent." People v. Solloway , 316 Mich. App. 174, 184, 891 N.W.2d 255 (2016) (quotation marks and citation omitted).

"A constitutional challenge to the validity of a statute can be brought in one of two ways: by either a facial challenge or an as-applied challenge." In re Forfeiture of 2000 GMC Denali & Contents, 316 Mich. App. 562, 569, 892 N.W.2d 388 (2016). A facial challenge attacks the statute itself and requires the challenger to " ‘establish that no set of circumstances exists under which the [a]ct would be valid. The fact that the ... [a]ct might operate unconstitutionally under some conceivable set of circumstances is insufficient....’ " Council of Organizations & Others for Ed. About Parochiaid, Inc. v. Governor , 455 Mich. 557, 568, 566 N.W.2d 208 (1997) (alterations in original), quoting United States v. Salerno , 481 U.S. 739, 745, 107 S. Ct. 2095, 95 L. Ed. 2d 697 (1987). An as-applied challenge alleges " ‘a present infringement or denial of a specific right or of a particular injury in process of actual execution’ of government action." Bonner v. City of Brighton , 495 Mich. 209, 223 n. 27, 848 N.W.2d 380 (2014), quoting Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. , 272 U.S. 365, 395, 47 S. Ct. 114, 71 L. Ed. 303 (1926).

Defendant does not argue that the trial judge in his case failed to act impartially when deciding to impose court costs under MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii ). Rather, the thrust of his argument is that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii ) operates in the state of Michigan to deprive all criminal defendants of their due-process right to appear before an impartial decision-maker because the statute incentivizes all judges to convict criminal defendants and impose court costs to raise revenue for the courts. This argument sets forth a facial challenge to the constitutionality of the statute at issue.2 Accordingly, defendant "must establish that no set of circumstances exists under which the act would be valid." Council of Organizations , 455 Mich. at 568, 566 N.W.2d 208 (quotation marks, citation, and alteration omitted).

The United States Constitution provides that no state shall "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." U.S. Const., Am. XIV.3 "It is axiomatic that a fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process."

Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., Inc. , 556 U.S. 868, 876, 129 S. Ct. 2252, 173 L. Ed. 2d 1208 (2009) (quotation marks, citation, and brackets omitted). "The Due Process Clause entitles a person to an impartial and disinterested tribunal in both civil and criminal cases." Marshall v. Jerrico, Inc. , 446 U.S. 238, 242, 100 S. Ct. 1610, 64 L. Ed. 2d 182 (1980). Among other things,

[t]his requirement of neutrality in adjudicative proceedings ... preserves both the appearance and reality of fairness, "generating the feeling, so important to a popular government, that justice has been done," Joint Anti-Fascist Committee v. McGrath , 341 U.S. 123, 172[, 71 S. Ct. 624, 649, 95 L. Ed. 817] (1951) (Frankfurter, J., concurring), by ensuring that no person will be deprived of his interests in the absence of a proceeding in which he may present his case with assurance that the arbiter is not predisposed to find against him. [ Id. ]

At the time defendant was sentenced, MCL 769.1k(1) provided, in relevant part:

If a defendant enters a plea of guilty or nolo contendere or if the court determines after a hearing or trial that the defendant is guilty, both of the following apply at the time of the sentencing or at the time entry of judgment of guilt is deferred pursuant to statute or sentencing is delayed pursuant to statute:
(a) The court shall impose the minimum state costs as set forth in [ MCL 769.1j ].
(b) The court may impose any or all of the following:
(i ) Any fine authorized by the statute for a violation of which the defendant entered a plea of guilty or nolo contendere or the court determined that the defendant was guilty.
(ii ) Any cost authorized by the statute for a violation of which the defendant entered a plea of guilty or nolo contendere or the court determined that the defendant was guilty.
(iii ) Until 36 months after the date the amendatory act that added subsection (7) is enacted into law,[4]any cost reasonably related to the actual costs incurred by the trial court without separately calculating those costs involved in the particular case, including, but not limited to, the following:
(A) Salaries and benefits for relevant court personnel.
(B) Goods and services necessary for the operation of the court.
(C) Necessary expenses for the operation and maintenance of court buildings and facilities. [ MCL 769.1k(1), as amended by 2014 PA 352 (emphasis added).]

Defendant contends in his brief to this Court that MCL 769.1k(1)(b)(iii ) "provides a financial incentive for trial judges to see that criminal defendants are convicted so that they can then order the defendant to pay costs, which can then be used to fund the courts in which the judges preside." He further contends that this funding scheme deprives criminal defendants of their right to appear before an impartial judge and violates separation-of-powers principles by preventing "the judicial branch from carrying out its constitutionally assigned functions of maintaining impartiality in criminal trials and ... maintaining and enforcing rules requiring that trial judges remain impartial in criminal proceedings." Defendant suggests that as a result of this arrangement, "all trial court judges lack neutrality in criminal proceedings[ and] no trial court judge can accomplish his or her constitutionally assigned function of overseeing criminal trials."

As an initial matter, we question whether the "financial incentive[s] for trial judges to see that criminal defendants are convicted" are operative in cases such as this one, involving defendants who choose to plead guilty and do not argue that their pleas were improperly entered and in which the costs imposed meet statutory requirements. Next, the degree or kind of financial interest that "is sufficient to disqualify a judge from sitting cannot be defined with precision." Caperton , 556 U.S. at 879, 129 S.Ct. 2252 (quotation marks and citations omitted). However, two seminal decisions from the United States Supreme Court identify circumstances relevant to the question of whether the financial interests of a trial court might raise due-process concerns.

The first of these two cases is Tumey v. Ohio , 273 U.S. 510, 523, 47 S. Ct. 437, 71 L. Ed. 749 (1927), in which the Supreme Court held that subjecting the liberty and property of a defendant to a court wherein the judge had a "direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest" in a conviction constituted denial of due process. In Tumey , state law and local ordinances allowed the mayor of the village of North College Hill, Ohio, to try cases involving violations of the state's prohibition act and to fine those convicted. Id. at 516-519, 47 S. Ct. 437. Half of the money collected from such fines went into the village's treasury. Id. at 518, 47 S. Ct. 437. The mayor also received $12 for each...

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