People v. Nasir

Decision Date02 April 2003
Docket NumberDocket No. 225705.
Citation255 Mich. App. 38,662 N.W.2d 29
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Ahmed NASIR, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

Michael A. Cox, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, and Daniel M. Levy, Assistant Attorney General, for the people.

John D. Lazar and Jerome A. Moore, Royal Oak, for the defendant.

Before: HOLBROOK, Jr., P.J., and GAGE and METER, JJ.


Defendant appeals as of right from his jury trial conviction of possessing or using counterfeit tax stamps, M.C.L. § 205.428(6). Defendant was sentenced to 18 to 120 months' imprisonment. We reverse and remand for a new trial.

In April 1999, two Michigan State Police officers assigned to the State Police Tobacco Tax Unit conducted an administrative inspection of the Ridgeway Party Store. Defendant, the store manager, was the only employee present. Upon examination, one of the officers determined that counterfeit tax stamps were affixed to a number of the tobacco products being sold.

Defendant requested that the jury be instructed as follows on the elements of the offense of possessing or using counterfeit cigarette tax stamps: "The elements of the offense with which the defendant is charged are these: (1) possession of counterfeit stamps; or (2) use of counterfeit stamps; (3) knowledge on defendant's part that the stamps are counterfeit; (4) a specific intent on defendant's part to violate the Michigan Tobacco Tax Act." The prosecution opposed this proposed instruction, arguing that the statute creates a strict-liability offense. The court agreed, and instructed the jury that the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that defendant possessed or used a counterfeit stamp at the Ridgeway Party Store without the authorization of the Michigan Department of Treasury.

Of central importance to this appeal is the issue whether the Legislature intended to dispense with a mens rea or fault requirement when creating this offense. While strict-liability offenses are generally disfavored, United States v. United States Gypsum Co., 438 U.S. 422, 438, 98 S.Ct. 2864, 57 L.Ed.2d 854 (1978); People v. Lardie, 452 Mich. 231, 240, 551 N.W.2d 656 (1996), the Legislature's authority to create strict-liability offenses is firmly rooted, Id.; People v. Roby, 52 Mich. 577, 579, 18 N.W. 365 (1884). As with all questions of statutory interpretation, when determining whether a statute imposes strict liability, our primary goal is to determine and effectuate the Legislature's intent. Lardie, supra at 239, 551 N.W.2d 656. "The starting place for the search for intent is the language used in the statute." Bio-Magnetic Resonance, Inc. v. Dep't of Pub. Health, 234 Mich.App. 225, 229, 593 N.W.2d 641 (1999). MCL 205.428(6) reads:

A person who manufactures, possesses, or uses a stamp or manufactures, possesses, or uses a counterfeit stamp or writing or device intended to replicate a stamp without authorization of the department, or a licensee who purchases or obtains a stamp from any person other than the department, is guilty of a felony and shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than 1 year or more than 10 years and may be punished by a fine of not more than $50,000.00.

Clearly, the statute does not include a fault element. The single reference to intent does not come in the context of describing a particular mens rea. Rather, it is used to identify the type of writing or device1 prohibited under the statute, i.e., a writing or device designed to replicate an authentic stamp. The failure to include a fault element in a statute does not end the inquiry, however. As our Supreme Court observed in Lardie, supra at 239, 551 N.W.2d 656, "In interpreting a statute in which the Legislature has not expressly included language indicating that fault is a necessary element of a crime, this Court must focus on whether the Legislature nevertheless intended to require some fault as a predicate to finding guilt." Courts commonly consider the following factors when making such an examination. See People v. Quinn, 440 Mich. 178, 190 n. 14, 487 N.W.2d 194 (1992).

First and foremost, courts consider whether the statute at issue is a codification of the common law. "[W]here mens rea was a necessary element of the crime at common law, [we] will not interpret the statute as dispensing with knowledge as a necessary element." Id. at 186, 487 N.W.2d 194. See also Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 252, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952). The crime of possessing or using counterfeit tax stamps is not a creature of the common law. Defendant argues that it derives from the common-law crime of forgery, and thus should include a mens rea element.2 We disagree. While elements of forgery inform M.C.L. § 205.428(6), it is at its heart a revenue statute, designed to assure that tobacco taxes levied in support of Michigan schools are not evaded.

Courts also consider whether the statute defines a public welfare offense. Morissette, supra at 255, 72 S.Ct. 240; Lardie, supra at 240, 551 N.W.2d 656. As Justice Cooley observed in Roby, supra at 579, 18 N.W. 365, "Many statutes which are in the nature of police regulations, as this is, impose criminal penalties irrespective of any intent to violate them; the purpose being to require a degree of diligence for the protection of the public which shall render violation impossible." Examples of such strict-liability offenses include narcotics laws, traffic laws, adulterated food or drug laws, criminal nuisances, and liquor control laws. See Morissette, supra at 256, 72 S.Ct. 240; Quinn, supra at 188, 487 N.W.2d 194; LaFave & Scott, Criminal Law (2nd ed., 1986), § 3.8, p. 242, n. 1.

MCL 205.428(6) is a revenue provision, not a public welfare law. The statute is not designed to place the burden of protecting the public welfare on an "otherwise innocent" person, United States v. Dotterweich, 320 U.S. 277, 281, 64 S.Ct. 134, 88 L.Ed. 48 (1943), who is in a position to prevent an injury to the public welfare "with no more care than society might reasonably expect...." Morissette, supra at 256, 72 S.Ct. 240. While the regulation of the sale and consumption of cigarettes is a public health concern, this statute only tangentially touches on these matters. In 1997, the Tobacco Products Tax Act, M.C.L. § 205.421 et seq., was amended in order to deal with what was identified as the substantial and widespread smuggling of cigarettes into Michigan in order to circumvent the tax levied on each pack of cigarettes. To combat this problem, the Legislature enacted a tax stamp program, 1997 PA 187, which included the creation of the offense in issue.

We also believe that the punishment provided for in the statute and the danger that conviction poses to a defendant's reputation is severe. Morissette, supra at 256, 72 S.Ct. 240; Lardie, supra at 255, 551 N.W.2d 656. In Quinn, our Supreme Court cited LaFave, supra, for the treatise's summary "of factors courts have considered important in interpreting statutes empty of words denoting fault...." Quinn, supra at 190 n. 14, 487 N.W.2d 194. Regarding the severity of punishment, LaFave observes that "[o]ther things being equal, the greater the possible punishment, the more likely some fault is required...." LaFave, supra, p. 244.3 Violation of M.C.L. § 205.428(6) is a felony punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years and a possible fine of up to $50,000. With some obvious and notable exceptions, this is not the type of punishment typical of public welfare offenses. See Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 616, 114 S.Ct. 1793, 128 L.Ed.2d 608 (1994) (observing that the Court's conclusion that a mens rea requirement should be read into the statute in issue is supported by the fact that the potential term of imprisonment for violation of the statute is ten years). Further, the statute mandates a prison term of not less than one year. Additionally, while not quantifiable, we believe the damage the proscribed punishment could potentially inflict to a defendant's reputation is more in keeping with the notion that such a defendant is guilty of some level of fault greater than what typically accompanies a strict-liability offense. "After all, `felony' is, as we noted in distinguishing certain common-law crimes from public welfare offenses, `"as bad a word as you can give to man or thing."'" Id. at 618, 114 S.Ct. 1793, quoting Morissette, supra at 260, 72 S.Ct. 240, quoting 2 Pollock & Maitland, History of English Law (2d ed., 1899), p. 465.

Connected to the severity of the potential punishment is the real possibility that to read the statute as not including a mens rea element would lead to the criminalization of "a broad range of apparently innocent conduct." Liparota v. United States, 471 U.S. 419, 426, 105 S.Ct. 2084, 85 L.Ed.2d 434 (1985). For example, because the statute punishes possession of counterfeit tax stamps, a strict reading of the statute would render criminal the possession by a retail customer of a pack of cigarettes bearing a counterfeit tax stamp. We do not believe that the Legislature intended that this potential problem would be regulated solely by prosecutorial discretion.

We also do not believe that the potential harm to the public at large is of such severity that we should presume the Legislature intended to impose liability without fault. In observing that the immediate harm4 attendant to a violation of M.C.L. § 205.428(6) is basically the loss of potential revenue, we do not intend to minimize the effect of that harm. We simply note that it is not the type of immediate harm to the public welfare that is common to many strict-liability offenses. For example, the prospective immediate harm imposed by the sale of adulterated food is both widespread and potentially devastating to the...

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  • People v. Magnant
    • United States
    • Michigan Supreme Court
    • July 30, 2021
    ...a revenue statute, designed to assure that tobacco taxes levied in support of Michigan schools are not evaded." People v. Nasir , 255 Mich App 38, 42, 662 N.W.2d 29 (2003). This Court's goal in interpreting a statute is to effectuate the Legislature's intent. Shami , 501 Mich. at 253, 912 N......
  • People v. Pinkney
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    • Court of Appeal of Michigan — District of US
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    ...common-law definition of ‘forgery’ is ‘a false making ... of any written instrument with intent to defraud.’ " People v. Nasir, 255 Mich.App. 38, 42 n. 2, 662 N.W.2d 29 (2003) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Thus, it is not unconstitutionally vague. Additionally, MCL 168.937 is unam......
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    • Michigan Supreme Court
    • July 30, 2021
    ...with some intent beyond the doing of the act itself (specific criminal intent).'" Davis, unpub op at 3. The majority then looked to Nasir, 255 Mich.App. 38, determine that MCL 205.428(3) is a general-intent offense that only requires intent to do the illegal act. Davis, unpub op at 3-6. In ......
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    • Court of Appeal of Michigan — District of US
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    ...has led to the rule that minimal circumstantial evidence is sufficient to establish a defendant’s state of mind." People v. Nasir , 255 Mich. App. 38, 45, 662 N.W.2d 29 (2003) (cleaned up). It would be no more difficult for the prosecutor to establish a defendant’s state of mind in violatin......
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