People v. Stoudemire

Decision Date21 December 1987
Docket NumberDocket No. 75907
Citation429 Mich. 262,414 N.W.2d 693
PartiesPEOPLE of the State of Michigan, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Wesley Jerome STOUDEMIRE, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Brian E. Thiede, Frank J. Kelley, Atty. Gen., Louis J. Caruso, Sol. Gen., Joe Filip, * Pros. Atty., and Jerrold E. Schrotenboer, * Asst. Pros. Attys., Jackson, for the People.

William Worth, Jr., Jackson, for defendant-appellant.

LEVIN, Justice.

The habitual offender statute provides escalating penalties for persons repeatedly convicted of felonies. 1 A life sentence may be imposed on a fourth-felony offender where the fourth felony is punishable by a term of five years or more. The question presented is whether Stoudemire was properly charged as an habitual offender with three prior convictions where the three convictions arose out of a single transaction. We hold that he could only be charged as a second offender, reverse the decision of the Court of Appeals, and remand for trial on the principal charge and a supplemental information charging that he was convicted but one previous time.

Stoudemire was originally charged with assaulting a prison guard 2 and as a fourth offender under the habitual offender statute. 3 The three prior convictions set forth in the supplemental information were for breaking and entering, unarmed robbery, and criminal sexual conduct, and arose out of a single transaction, and a single trial and sentencing.

Stoudemire moved to dismiss the supplemental information, arguing that because the three prior felony convictions arose out of a single transaction, they should count as only one "conviction" under the habitual offender statute. Therefore, Stoudemire argued, any supplemental information should have charged him as only a second offender. 4 The trial court denied Stoudemire's motion, and Stoudemire thereafter pled guilty to the principal charge in exchange for dismissal of the habitual offender charge. Stoudemire subsequently appealed his plea-based conviction to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed, 140 Mich.App. 687, 365 N.W.2d 214.

I

Legislative purpose is the lodestar of statutory construction. 5 This Court has said:

"A court's responsibility when it construes a statute is to implement the purpose and intent of those who enact it. A failure to consider whether the Legislature understood the meaning of a term quite differently when a statute was enacted than it is understood today would allow a statute to be construed in a manner which extends its intended scope." People v. Gilbert, 414 Mich. 191, 200, 324 N.W.2d 834 (1982).

" 'The particular inquiry is not what is the abstract force of the words or what they may comprehend, but in what sense were they intended to be understood or what understanding do they convey as used in the particular act.' " People v. Lynch, 410 Mich. 343, 354, 301 N.W.2d 796 (1981). 6

In Wymer v. Holmes, 429 Mich. 66, 76, 412 N.W.2d 213 (1987), this Court, discussing "plain meaning," said that "in construing a statute, this Court must read the language of the statute in light of the general purpose to be accomplished.... Our first task, therefore, is to ascertain the question of legislative purpose."

Once legislative intent is discerned, it must be given effect, even if doing so might appear to conflict with the letter of the statute. " '[A] thing which is within the spirit of a statute is within the statute, although not within the letter; and a thing within the letter is not within the statute, unless within the intention.' " Council # 23 v. Oakland Co., 409 Mich. 299, 319, 294 N.W.2d 578 (1980). 7

In this case, the legislative history of the statute indicates that the Legislature, by using the phrase "after having been three times convicted," intended that the fourth-offender penalties reach only incorrigible criminals who had failed three separate times to reform--who had been convicted three separate times where the last two convictions were for crimes committed after the prior conviction. The Legislature used the phrase "after having been three times convicted" as shorthand.

When the Legislature uses a shorthand expression, legislative intent controls over an arguably literal reading of the statute inconsistent with that intent. As this Court stated in Elba Twp. v. Gratiot Co., 287 Mich. 372, 394, 283 N.W. 615 (1939), where it encountered a similar question of statutory construction:

"In ascertaining the true intent and meaning of a statute often allowance must be made for attempted brevity of expression. 'Where the language of a statute, in its ordinary meaning and grammatical construction, leads to a manifest contradiction of the apparent purpose of the enactment, or to some inconvenience or absurdity, hardship or injustice, presumably not intended, a construction may be put upon it which modifies the meaning of the words, and even the structure of the sentence.' " 8

II

The habitual offender provisions were first enacted as part of the Code of Criminal Procedure in 1927, 9 and adopted in toto the language of New York's habitual offender statute. 10

The author of the New York statute, State Senator Caleb Baumes, 11 aimed the act's escalating penalties--and in particular the mandatory life sentence imposed in the original enactment on fourth offenders--at the professional criminal, the hard-core recidivist who had been repeatedly tried, convicted, and sentenced, and who committed yet another crime. Senator Baumes said:

"The theory of the Fourth Offender Act 12 is not punishment at all, but it is protection to the public. The man who has been convicted once, twice, three times, sentenced and served his time and comes [sic] out and resumed operations again has proven to you and to me that he cannot learn his lesson. He is incurable. He is non-reformable. And either he cannot or he will not adjust himself to the fixed and settled rules and regulations of society and civilization.... He is a [sic] habitual criminal, a menace to society, and as such should be segregated from society for the good of society and perhaps for his own good as well." Baumes, The Baumes laws and legislative program in New York, 52 ABA Rep. 511, 521 (1927). (Emphasis added.)

New York courts have construed the Baumes Act in accordance with Senator Baumes' intent. In People v. Spellman, 136 Misc. 25, 242 N.Y.S. 68 (1930), the court declared that multiple convictions on the same day constitute only one "conviction" for purposes of the habitual offender statute. Spellman was convicted of burglary in 1922. Subsequently, on January 19, 1924, he pled guilty to seven indictments for burglary and grand larceny. After his release from prison, he was again convicted of burglary, and the state charged him as a fourth offender under the habitual offender statute. The court held that the seven same-day convictions constituted only one habitual offender "conviction," and that therefore Spellman could be charged only as a third offender. Before his most recent arrest, Spellman had had only two, not three, opportunities to reform:

"The courts have, however, humanely and justly required a mandatory life sentence 13 only after three or more fully completed, legal, prior judgments of conviction, separated sufficiently to offer opportunity for the felon to reform. (People v. Bergman, 176 [AD] 318 [162 NYS 443 (1916) ], People v. Schaller, 224 [AD] 3, 8 [229 NYS 492 (1928) ], People ex rel Gaczewski v. Jennings, 223 [AD] 78 [228 NYS 373 (1928) ].)" Spellman, supra, at p. 29, 242 N.Y.S. 68. 14

Construing the Michigan statute in 1929, this Court echoed Senator Baumes and the New York courts:

"[Habitual offender] laws evidence a desire on the part of the people of the State to protect themselves from the acts of habitual violators of law. Such persons, by the repeated commissions of felonies, have shown that they are a menace to society, unfit for liberty, and should be deprived thereof. The punishment in such cases is increased because of the apparent persistence in the commission of crime by the person convicted and his indifference to the laws deemed necessary for the protection of the people and their property." People v. Palm, 245 Mich. 396, 401, 223 N.W. 67 (1929). 15 (Emphasis added.)

By borrowing New York's statute in its entirety, the Legislature indicated that it was motivated by the same purpose that underlay the New York statute. The Legislature intended that the habitual offender statute's fourth-felony provision, like the parallel provision in the New York statute, should apply only to a person who had had three opportunities to reform--who had been convicted and sentenced and then subsequently committed another felony for which he was also convicted and sentenced, and then subsequent to the second conviction committed yet another felony, for which he was again convicted and sentenced. Upon this person's conviction for yet a fourth felony, he would be subject to the habitual offender act's fourth-felony provision. He would be subject to mandatory life imprisonment because he had three times failed to reform, "because of the apparent persistence in the commission of crime by the person convicted and his indifference to the laws...."

Stoudemire had one opportunity to reform before he was charged as a fourth-felony offender. Before the assault in the instant case, Stoudemire had been tried and sentenced but once. He could only have been charged as a second offender. 16 To deem Stoudemire a fourth-felony offender, subject to the most severe habitual offender penalties, would be contrary to the legislative purpose of applying the fourth-felony offender penalties against only those persons who, after failing three separate opportunities to reform, were deemed incorrigible criminals.

III

It is appropriate to infer legislative intent from the purpose of similar statutes enacted in other...

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