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People v. Smith

Court of Appeals of Michigan

August 22, 2017

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
VIRGIL SMITH, Defendant-Appellee.

         Wayne Circuit Court LC No. 15-005228-01-FH

          Before: Riordan, P.J., and Servitto and M. J. Kelly, JJ.

         ON REMAND

          Servitto, J.

         This case is before us, as on reconsideration granted (People v Smith, Mich.; ___ N.W.2d ___ (2017), to determine whether the trial court's order declaring a portion of defendant's plea agreement void was in error and whether the trial court's subsequent order denying the prosecution's motion to vacate defendant's plea constituted an abuse of discretion. This Court previously dismissed the appeal as moot. People v Smith, unpublished opinion per curiam of the Court of Appeals, issued April 18, 2017 (Docket No. 332288). We now affirm.

         We stated the relevant facts in our prior decision:

In May 2015, defendant was involved in an altercation with his ex-wife. As a result, he was charged with domestic violence, MCL 750.81(2); malicious destruction of personal property, MCL 750.377a(1)(a)(i); felonious assault, MCL 750.82; and felony firearm, MCL 750.227b. On February 11, 2016, the prosecution and defendant entered into a plea agreement whereby defendant would plead guilty to the charge of malicious destruction of property and agreed both to resign his Senate seat and to refrain from holding public office during his five-year probationary period (which included a ten-month jail term). The remaining charges against the defendant would be dismissed. At the sentencing hearing, the trial court ruled sua sponte that the provisions of the agreement related to defendant's Senate seat violated the constitutional principle of separation of powers and infringed on the people's right to choose their representatives. Accordingly, the trial court declared those portions of the plea agreement void because they "offend[ ] the Constitution of the State of Michigan, [are] contrary to public policy and compromise[ ] the integrity of th[e] court." In all other respects, the court sentenced defendant in accordance with the plea agreement.
The prosecution subsequently moved to vacate defendant's plea. The prosecution argued that in failing to resign, defendant had not complied with the plea agreement and that the prosecution should be permitted to negotiate a new plea deal given the trial court's refusal to enforce the entirety of the original agreement. The trial court denied the prosecution's motion. The trial court acknowledged that while plea agreements are akin to contracts, they must serve the interests of justice. The trial court then held that where the parties had initially indicated that the agreement protected the public and provided for punishment and rehabilitation, enforcement of the agreement without the "offending portion" would serve the interests of justice. [Smith, at slip op 1].

         The trial court added that vacating the plea would harm the interests of justice because:

[v]acating the plea would violate the fundamental principle that it is the right of the people to elect whom they choose to elect for office by allowing the prosecutor to pressure a member of the legislative branch to resign or face prosecution and likely imprisonment. Vacating the plea would violate the separation of powers set forth in the Michigan Constitution, where only the Senate can discipline or remove one of its members convicted of this type of crime, by allowing the prosecutor to pressure a member of the legislative branch to resign or face prosecution and likely imprisonment. Vacating the plea would violate public policy by allowing the prosecutor to dominate the legislative branch of government with the threat of forced resignation.
And granting the prosecution[']s motion to vacate this plea would compromise the court's integrity by involving it in an act that violates public policy and offends the constitution.

         On remand, we consider the prosecution's appeal of both the trial court's original order voiding a portion of defendant's plea agreement and its order denying the prosecution's motion to vacate defendant's plea.

         A trial court's decision to set aside a guilty plea is reviewed for an abuse of discretion. People v Strong, 213 Mich.App. 107, 112; 539 N.W.2d 736 (1995). An abuse of discretion "occurs when the trial court chooses an outcome that falls outside the range of principled outcomes." People v Lee, 314 Mich.App. 266, 272; 886 N.W.2d 185 (2016) (internal quotation marks omitted). Issues of constitutional law are reviewed de novo. People v Benton, 294 Mich.App. 191, 195; 817 N.W.2d 599 (2011).

         On appeal, the prosecution argues that the trial court erred in voiding the portion of the plea agreement requiring defendant to resign his state Senate seat and refrain from seeking elective or appointed public office during the five-year probationary period. The prosecution further argues that the trial court abused its discretion in refusing to allow the prosecution to withdraw the plea agreement and proceed to trial. The prosecution specifically contends that the plea agreement did not, as the trial court found, violate the separation of powers and that both defendant and the prosecution were entitled to receive the benefit of their end of the negotiated plea agreement. [1]

         The Michigan Constitution provides for the separation of powers, specifically stating, "The powers of government are divided into three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. No person exercising powers of one branch shall exercise powers properly belonging to another branch except as expressly provided in this constitution." Const 1963, art 3, § 2. "While the Constitution provides for three separate branches of government, Const 1963, art 3, § 2, the boundaries between these branches need not be 'airtight[.]' " Makowski v Governor, 495 Mich. 465, 482; 852 N.W.2d 61 (2014) (internal citation omitted). Indeed, the Michigan Supreme Court has held that this constitutional provision does not require "that [the separate branches of government] must be kept wholly and entirely separate and distinct, and have no common link or dependence, the one upon the other, in the slightest degree." Kent Co Prosecutor v Kent Co Sheriff (On Rehearing), 428 Mich. 314, 321-322; 409 N.W.2d 202 (1987), quoting Local 321, State, Co, & Muni Workers of America v Dearborn, 311 Mich. 674, 677; 19 N.W.2d 140 (1945). Instead, "[t]he true meaning [of the separation of powers clause] is that the whole power of one of these departments should not be exercised by the same hands which possess the whole power of either of the other departments; and that such exercise of the whole would subvert the principles of a free Constitution." Id. at 322.

         Relevant to the instant matter, the state Constitution contains a clause regarding the qualifications of an individual to serve as part of the state Legislature, including the state Senate:

Each senator and representative must be a citizen of the United States, at least 21 years of age, and an elector of the district he represents. The removal of his domicile from the district shall be deemed a vacation of the office. No person who has been convicted of subversion or who has within the preceding 20 years been convicted of a felony involving a breach of public trust shall be eligible for either house of the legislature. [Const 1963, art 4, § 7.]

         The Michigan Constitution added additional disqualifying characteristics that would bar someone from seeking public office at Const 1963, art 11, § 8:

A person is ineligible for election or appointment to any state or local elective office of this state and ineligible to hold a position in public employment in this state that is policy-making or that has discretionary authority over public assets if, within the immediately preceding 20 years, the person was convicted of a felony involving dishonesty, deceit, fraud, or a breach of the public trust and the conviction was related to the person's official capacity while the person was holding any elective office or position of employment in ...

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