People v. Ramsdell

Decision Date23 June 1998
Docket NumberDocket No. 197822
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Bruce Prescott RAMSDELL, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Michigan — District of US

Frank J. Kelley, Attorney General, Thomas L. Casey, Solicitor General, John G. McBain, Prosecuting Attorney, and Jerrold Schrotenboer, Chief Appellate Attorney, for People.

Arthur James Rubiner, West Bloomfield, for Defendant-Appellant.



A jury convicted defendant of the crime of prisoner in possession of contraband, M.C.L. § 800.281(4); M.S.A. § 28.1621(4). Defendant appeals as of right. We affirm.

I. Factual Background

Defendant was imprisoned at the State Prison of Southern Michigan on January 7, 1996. Michael Allan, a corrections officer at the prison, testified that on that date he saw defendant in his cell cutting up small, white pieces of paper into one- to two-inch squares. Allan explained that in his experience as a prison guard such small squares of paper were used to package cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. Allan testified that defendant later placed a sheet over the bars of his cell in violation of prison rules and subsequently left his cell. Eventually, corrections officers decided to search defendant and found twelve folded pieces of paper that appeared to contain marijuana. A laboratory scientist with the state police tested the contents of one of these packets and confirmed that it contained marijuana.

Before trial, the trial court held that the crime of prisoner in possession of contraband is a strict liability crime. Accordingly, the trial court refused to allow defendant to present evidence to support theories that he did not know the contents of the package and that he possessed the package under duress. Defendant offered no testimony on his behalf before the jury.

However, defendant did present testimony from himself and two other prisoners as part of an offer of proof outside the jury's presence. Tyrone Williams, who testified that he was serving a life sentence, said that he saw defendant on January 7, 1996. Williams claimed that he "forced" defendant to take a plastic bag that contained little white pieces of paper and told defendant that he wanted defendant to drop it in Williams' "other chow hole." Williams indicated that, when defendant asked what was in the package, he told defendant "don't make no difference what it is" and "[i]f it don't get there, you can get hurt. Or, you gonna--you know, you gonna have to pay for this." Williams testified that he had defendant's arm and put the plastic bag in defendant's hand and that defendant "coulda throwed it down," but that doing so "woulda cost him. [Defendant] woulda been in some trouble."

Steven Roy, another prisoner, testified that he saw Williams hand defendant something "in a clear package." Defendant testified that Williams put a small plastic package in defendant's hand and that Williams told him that he wanted defendant to take the package to "the chow hall." Defendant said that Williams told him "if I refused to do what he wanted, then he would have--he would not have any problem with either forcing me to pay an elaborate sum or money [sic], or that I could be stabbed--that I could physically be stabbed." Defendant testified that he asked Williams what was in the paper and that Williams told him "not to worry about it." Defendant indicated that he put the package in his pocket and proceeded toward the "chow hall."

II. Elements of Prisoner in Possession of Contraband

Defendant argues that the trial court erred (1) by refusing his request for a jury instruction that to convict him of prisoner in possession of contraband the jury must find that he knowingly possessed the marijuana that the prosecution alleged was found on him and (2) by precluding defendant from offering a defense of lack of knowledge that he was in possession of marijuana. In effect, defendant's position is that the trial court erred in determining that prisoner in possession of contraband is a strict liability offense. 1 We disagree.

A. Overview

The pertinent statute, M.C.L. § 800.281(4); M.S.A. § 28.1621(4), states, "Except as provided in section 2 [regarding medical prescriptions], a prisoner shall not possess any alcoholic liquor, prescription drug, poison, or controlled substance." We decline defendant's invitation to amend the statute so that it reads "Except as provided in section 2, a prisoner shall not KNOWINGLY possess any alcoholic liquor, prescription drug, poison, or controlled substance." As this Court said in People v. Norman, 176 Mich.App. 271, 274, 438 N.W.2d 895 (1989):

In resolving disputed interpretations of statutory language, it is the function of the reviewing court to effectuate legislative intent. If the language of the statute is clear and its meaning unambiguous, a common-sense reading of the statute will suffice and no interpretation is necessary. Karl v. Bryant Air Conditioning Co., 416 Mich. 558, 567, 331 N.W.2d 456 (1982); State Farm Mutual Automobile Ins. Co. v. Wyant, 154 Mich.App. 745, 749-750, 398 N.W.2d 517 (1986). We find the language of the statute which proscribes the possession of liquor [and, as here, controlled substances] in prison, M.C.L. § 800.281; M.S.A. § 28.1621, to be clear and unambiguous. Therefore a common-sense reading of the statute will suffice.

Indeed, such a reading should suffice. In enacting the statute, the Legislature straightforwardly set out two, and only two, elements of the crime. First, a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant is, in fact, a "prisoner." Second, a prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant "possessed" a controlled substance (or other item proscribed by M.C.L. § 800.281; M.S.A. § 28.1621 ), i.e., that the defendant had actual physical control of the controlled substance. It is undisputed on the record that the prosecutor in this case proved both of these elements beyond a reasonable doubt. There were no other elements for the prosecutor to prove. The word "knowingly" is absolutely absent from the statute as enacted by the Legislature and signed into law by the Governor.

Defendant's position implicitly suggests that the Legislature did not know quite what it was doing when it enacted M.C.L. § 800.281(4); M.S.A. § 28.1621(4). We disagree; the Legislature is presumed to be aware of the consequences of the use, or omission, of language when it enacts the laws that govern our behavior. As Judge Fitzgerald wrote in Lumley v. Univ. of Michigan Bd. of Regents, 215 Mich.App. 125, 129-130, 544 N.W.2d 692 (1996):

Courts must read the statutory language being construed in light of the general purpose sought to be accomplished. Where the language is so plain as to leave no room for interpretation, courts should not read into it words that are not there or that cannot fairly be implied.

It is presumed that, when the Legislature enacts statutes, it is familiar with the rules of statutory construction and has knowledge of existing laws on the same subject. [Citations omitted.]

Here, the suggestion of legislative incompetence is particularly egregious when the provisions of M.C.L. § 800.281(4); M.S.A. § 28.1621(4) are compared with M.C.L. § 333.7403; M.S.A. § 14.15(7403), which covers the possession of controlled substances generally. M.C.L. § 333.7403(1); M.S.A. § 14.15(7403)(1) provides that "[a] person shall not knowingly or intentionally possess a controlled substance ..." (Emphasis supplied.). In the general statute regarding possession of controlled substances, the Legislature specifically made the possession of controlled substances a crime with an intent element by the conscious use of the words "knowingly or intentionally." On its face, the implicit assumption that, by accident rather than by design, the Legislature failed to include those words in the statute covering contraband in prisons is far afield from a common-sense reading.

This is particularly true when one recognizes that the preface to this statute states, as noted in Norman, supra at 275 & n. 1, 438 N.W.2d 895, that its purpose is to prohibit or limit access by inmates to certain weapons, alcoholic liquors, and drugs. See People v. Krajenka, 188 Mich.App. 661, 664, 470 N.W.2d 403 (1990). Specifically, the preface reads:

An Act to prohibit or limit the access by prisoners and by employees of correctional facilities to certain weapons and to alcoholic liquor, drugs, medicines, poisons, and controlled substances in, on, or outside of correctional facilities; to prohibit or limit the bringing into or onto certain facilities and real property, and the disposition of, certain weapons and substances; to prohibit or limit the selling, giving, or furnishing of certain weapons and substances to prisoners; to prohibit the control or possession of certain weapons and substances by prisoners; and to prescribe penalties.

It is significant that there is not a hint in this preface that it was the intent of the Legislature to prohibit only the knowing control of weapons and substances, including controlled substances, by prisoners. Further, there is a straightforward reason, requiring no great amount of thought or interpretation, for imposing a different, and stricter, standard on prisoners than on the general population: prisoners in correctional facilities are, after all, convicted criminals whose liberty is restricted by law and who are confined, after all, in the controlled, but often volatile, environment of a state prison. To require a knowing possession of drugs as an element of the crime for the general populace while omitting such a requirement for prisoners is, when viewed in this context, indeed sensible.

B. Norman

and Ricky Vaughn

The dissent relies on two cases to reach its conclusion...

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