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People v. Washington

Supreme Court of Michigan

June 12, 2018

PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN, Plaintiff-Appellant,
v.
TARONE D. WASHINGTON, Defendant-Appellee.

          Argued on application for leave to appeal April 11, 2018

          Justices: Brian K. Zahra, Bridget M. McCormack, David F. Viviano, Richard H. Bernstein, Kurtis T. Wilder, Elizabeth T. Clement

         BEFORE THE ENTIRE BENCH

          OPINION

          STEPHEN J. MARKMAN CHIEF JUSTICE.

         Under the Michigan Penal Code, a person is guilty of the offense of felony-firearm if he or she carries or possesses a firearm when committing or attempting to commit a felony. For purposes of the Penal Code, a "felony" is an offense that is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison. Under Michigan's Public Health Code, a person is guilty of a misdemeanor if he or she knowingly or intentionally keeps or maintains a drug house. This offense, however, is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison. The issue presented in this case is whether a person is guilty of felony-firearm if he or she carries or possesses a firearm when keeping or maintaining a drug house.

         In an unpublished, split decision, the Court of Appeals majority concluded that the misdemeanor offense of keeping or maintaining a drug house is not a "felony" for purposes of the Penal Code and, therefore, cannot serve as the predicate felony for a felony-firearm conviction. The majority concluded that it was compelled to reach this outcome given this Court's decision in People v Smith[1] as well as its own decisions in People v Williams[2] and People v Baker.[3] In a partial dissent, Judge Swartzle explained why the offense of keeping or maintaining a drug house, which satisfies the definition of "felony" in the Penal Code, can be treated as the underlying felony for felony-firearm in the Penal Code notwithstanding Smith, Williams, and Baker.

         For the reasons discussed in this opinion, we reverse the Court of Appeals. When the government charges a criminal defendant with felony-firearm under the Penal Code, this Court must look to the Penal Code to ascertain the meaning of the word "felony, " which is defined as an offense punishable by imprisonment in state prison. Although the Legislature intended the offense of keeping or maintaining a drug house to be a misdemeanor for purposes of the Public Health Code, that offense is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison, and, therefore, it unquestionably satisfies the definition of "felony" in the Penal Code. Thus, under the clear and unambiguous language of the Penal Code, which this Court must apply as written, a person who carries or possesses a firearm when keeping or maintaining a drug house is guilty of felony-firearm.

         We reverse the portion of the Court of Appeals' judgment that reached the contrary conclusion, reinstate defendant's felony-firearm conviction, and remand this case to the Court of Appeals to consider defendant's remaining arguments.

         I. FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS

         Following a jury trial, defendant, Tarone D. Washington, was convicted of keeping or maintaining a drug house in violation of MCL 333.7405(1)(d), felony-firearm in violation of MCL 750.227b, possession of marijuana in violation of MCL 333.7403(2)(d), and receiving and concealing a stolen firearm in violation of MCL 750.535b. Defendant's conviction for keeping and maintaining a drug house served as the predicate felony for his felony-firearm conviction.

         On direct appeal, defendant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to support his convictions.[4] After additional briefing by the parties, [5] the Court of Appeals vacated defendant's felony-firearm conviction but affirmed the remaining convictions.[6]

         In vacating defendant's felony-firearm conviction, the Court of Appeals majority relied on our decision in Smith, which held that offenses labeled as misdemeanors in the Penal Code but punishable by up to two years' imprisonment can be treated as felonies for purposes of the habitual-offender, probation, and consecutive-sentencing statutes in the Code of Criminal Procedure.[7] The majority claimed, however, that Smith stands for the proposition that "crimes labelled misdemeanors are misdemeanors for purposes of the Penal Code, " regardless of where that offense is found in the law.[8] In further support of its assertion, the majority relied on the Court of Appeals' decisions in Williams and Baker, [9] both of which held that an offense explicitly labeled as a "misdemeanor" in the Penal Code but punishable by up to two years' imprisonment could not serve as the predicate "felony" for a different offense in the Penal Code.[10]

         According to the majority, only by applying the Michigan Code of Criminal Procedure's definition of "felony" can the misdemeanor offense of keeping or maintaining a drug house be treated as a felony for purposes of a felony-firearm conviction.[11] This would be impermissible, said the majority, because that definition "cannot be used to make a two-year misdemeanor offense that is located in a different act, such as the Penal Code or the Public Health Code into a felony[.]"[12] Thus, the majority concluded that defendant's conviction for keeping or maintaining a drug house could not serve as the underlying felony for his felony-firearm conviction because the offense is a misdemeanor, not a felony.[13]

         The majority nonetheless indicated that had it been writing on a proverbial "blank slate, " it would have concluded that a "two-year misdemeanor qualifies as a felony for purposes of the felony-firearm statute" because the "offense of felony-firearm is found in the Penal Code and, therefore, [it] should apply the definition of 'felony' found in the Penal Code."[14]

         Although he concurred in affirming three of defendant's convictions, Judge Swartzle disagreed with the majority that vacating the felony-firearm conviction was required by Smith, Williams, or Baker. In his partial dissent, Judge Swartzle read our decision in Smith as establishing the following general proposition:

Definitions and labels in a code apply to and throughout that code, but that code alone. When a primary offense and underlying offense are located in the same code, then any conflict is resolved through traditional rules of statutory construction. When the two offenses are located in different codes, the definitions and labels in the primary offense code trump those in the other code.[15]

         Based on this proposition, Judge Swartzle concluded that the general definition of felony in the Penal Code, where the primary offense of felony-firearm is located, trumps the misdemeanor label for the underlying offense of keeping or maintaining a drug house in the Public Health Code.[16] And because keeping or maintaining a drug house is punishable by up to two years' imprisonment, it meets the definition of "felony" in the Penal Code and can serve as the predicate felony for purposes of a felony-firearm conviction.[17] He further used this proposition to distinguish Williams and Baker from the present matter because both of those cases dealt with primary and underlying offenses in the Penal Code, whereas this case involves a primary offense in the Penal Code and an underlying offense in the Public Health Code.[18] Therefore, Judge Swartzle would have affirmed on all counts.[19]

         The prosecutor thereafter sought leave to appeal in this Court. We directed the Clerk to schedule oral argument on whether to grant the application or take other action.[20]

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW AND RULES OF STATUTORY INTERPRETATION

         Questions of statutory interpretation are reviewed de novo.[21] When interpreting a statute, this Court's primary goal is to " 'ascertain the legislative intent that may reasonably be inferred from the words in [the] statute.' "[22] This Court gives effect to every word, phrase, and clause in a statute-and, in particular, considers the plain meaning of the critical word or phrase as well as its placement and purpose in the statutory scheme-to avoid rendering any part of the statute nugatory or surplusage if at all possible.[23] If the statute's language is clear and unambiguous, then the statute must be enforced as written.[24] A necessary corollary of this principle is that a " 'court may read nothing into an unambiguous statute that is not within the manifest intent of the Legislature as derived from the words of the statute itself.' "[25]

         III. ANALYSIS

         The Michigan Penal Code[26] provides that a "person who carries or has in his or her possession a firearm when he or she commits or attempts to commit a felony . . . is guilty of a felony . . . ."[27] This offense is colloquially referred to as felony-firearm. As mandated by the Legislature, this Court must interpret the term "felony" in the Penal Code to mean an offense that is punishable "by imprisonment in state prison" upon the defendant's conviction.[28] Thus, whether an offense satisfies the Penal Code's definition of a "felony" is dependent upon the correctional institution in which a defendant could be imprisoned upon conviction.

         According to Michigan's Code of Criminal Procedure, [29] a defendant may be imprisoned in a "state penal institution, " as opposed to a "county jail, " if the punishment for the offense is more than one year's imprisonment.[30] In other words, an offense punishable by more than one year's imprisonment would be an offense for which an individual may be imprisoned in a state prison.[31] Accordingly, the Legislature clearly expressed its intent that a person is guilty of felony-firearm under the Penal Code if he or she carries or possesses a firearm when committing or attempting to commit an offense that is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. With this in mind, we now turn to the primary issue in this appeal: whether keeping or maintaining a drug house can be treated as the predicate felony for a felony-firearm conviction. Under Michigan's Public Health Code, [32] a person shall not

[k]nowingly keep or maintain a store, shop, warehouse, dwelling, building, vehicle, boat, aircraft, or other structure or place that is frequented by persons using controlled substances in violation of this article for the purpose of using controlled substances or that is used for keeping or selling controlled substances in violation of this article.[33]

         This offense is "punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years" if the defendant is found to have "knowingly or intentionally" violated this provision of the Public Health Code.[34]

         Given the Public Health Code's clear and unequivocal language, the offense of keeping or maintaining a drug house is punishable by imprisonment for more than one year, which necessarily means that the offense is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison.[35] And because this offense is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison, it undeniably meets the definition of "felony" in the Penal Code. Accordingly, under the clear and unambiguous language of the Penal Code, a person is guilty of felony-firearm if he or she carries or possesses a firearm when keeping or maintaining a drug house.

         While this outcome would be otherwise unobjectionable, there is a purported conflict between the Penal Code and the Public Health Code. Although it did not provide definitions for either "felony" or "misdemeanor, " the Legislature expressly intended the offense of keeping or maintaining a drug house to be considered a "misdemeanor" for purposes of the Public Health Code, notwithstanding the accompanying punishment.[36] Because the offense is explicitly labeled a misdemeanor, both defendant and the Court of Appeals majority surmise that it cannot serve as the predicate felony for a felony-firearm charge brought under the Penal Code. We disagree.

         This issue of statutory interpretation is strikingly similar to the one this Court addressed in Smith, which involved a purported conflict between provisions in the Penal Code that expressly labeled certain offenses punishable by up to two years' imprisonment as misdemeanors and the provision in the Code of Criminal Procedure that defines offenses punishable by more than one year as felonies. More specifically, we had to decide whether two-year misdemeanors in the Penal Code could be treated as felonies for the purpose of applying the habitual-offender, ...


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