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People v. Czuprynski

Court of Appeals of Michigan

August 2, 2018


          Bay Circuit Court LC No. 16-010157-FH

          Before: Meter, P.J., and Gadola and Tukel, JJ.

          Tukel, J.

         Defendant appeals as of right his conviction by a jury of committing a motor-vehicle moving violation and thereby causing a serious impairment of a body function, MCL 257.601d(2). The trial court sentenced him to 18 months' probation. We reverse defendant's conviction and remand for a new trial.

         I. FACTS

         Defendant was driving on Center Avenue in Hampton Township on June 15, 2015, approaching Scheurman Road, when he struck James Stivenson with his vehicle. Stivenson broke his legs in eight places, suffered a head injury, and now has difficulty walking. A police officer testified that immediately after the accident, defendant seemed "sleepy, drowsy, [or] slow." The officer testified that defendant did not know what he had hit and "thought somebody had thrown a bag of garbage at him." Defendant stated at trial that he had taken a pill to help him "relax" and that it was a "sleeping aid" but "not a sleeping pill." It also is not disputed that defendant had consumed some beer prior to driving that night. However, Stivenson was dressed in dark clothing, and witnesses stated that Stivenson tried to rush across the street in front of defendant's car. Stivenson also had a 0.19 blood-alcohol level.

         An analysis of the crash-data-retrieval system from defendant's car revealed that defendant had been traveling at a speed of 41 miles per hour, without hitting the brakes, before the crash. The speed limit before the intersection was 35 miles per hour. In addition, Center Avenue had a blinking yellow light at the time of the crash. A police officer explained that when a driver is faced with a flashing yellow light, he or she is "supposed to proceed with caution . . . and continue through if it's . . . clear."

         Two charges were submitted to the jury: "operating a motor vehicle while visibly impaired causing serious impairment of a body function to another person" (Count I) and "committing a moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function" (Count II). The jury acquitted defendant on Count I but convicted him on Count II, and this appeal followed.


         Defendant argues that M Crim JI 15.19, defining "moving violation causing serious impairment of a body function" was erroneous. Defendant also argues that the trial court compounded the error in M Crim JI 15.19 in answer to a jury question during deliberations, when it again emphasized the erroneous portion of the instruction. We agree.

         We review the proper interpretation of a statute de novo. People v Barrera, 278 Mich.App. 730, 735; 752 N.W.2d 485 (2008). "[J]ury instructions that involve questions of law are also reviewed de novo." People v Gilis, 474 Mich. 105, 113; 712 N.W.2d 419 (2006) (quotation marks and citation omitted). When interpreting a statute, it is the court's duty to give effect to the intent of the Legislature as expressed in the actual language used in the statute. People v Calloway, 500 Mich. 180, 184; 895 N.W.2d 165 (2017). "It is the role of the judiciary to interpret, not write, the law." People v Schaefer, 473 Mich. 418, 430; 703 N.W.2d 774 (2005). If the statutory language is clear and unambiguous, the statute is to be enforced as written. People v Laney, 470 Mich. 267, 271; 680 N.W.2d 888 (2004). In those circumstances, judicial construction is neither necessary nor permitted because it is presumed that the Legislature intended the clear meaning it expressed. People v Stone, 463 Mich. 558, 562; 621 N.W.2d 702 (2001).

         "The right to a trial by a jury is one of the lodestar concepts of Anglo-American jurisprudence and has historical roots that grow as deep as the Magna Carta of 1215." People v Antkoviak, 242 Mich.App. 424, 441; 619 N.W.2d 18 (2000). "A criminal defendant is entitled to have a properly instructed jury consider the evidence against him." People v Riddle, 467 Mich. 116, 124; 649 N.W.2d 30 (2002). Jury instructions must include all elements of the charged offenses and any material issues, defenses, and theories if there is evidence to support them. People v Jackson (On Reconsideration), 313 Mich.App. 409, 421; 884 N.W.2d 297 (2002), citing People v Reed, 393 Mich. 342, 349-350; 224 N.W.2d 867 (1975). Absent proper instruction, a defendant might be convicted of an "offense" which our Legislature has not in fact criminalized. And perhaps most importantly for this case, "[a]n omission, or an incomplete instruction, is less likely to be prejudicial than a misstatement of the law." Henderson v Kibbe, 431 U.S. 145, 155; 97 S.Ct. 1730; 52 L.Ed.2d 203 (1977).

         At issue is whether the provided jury instruction adequately informed the jury of what the statute requires for a defendant to have caused the serious impairment of a body function under MCL 257.601d(2).

         A. MCL 257.601d(2)

         The statute under which defendant was convicted, MCL 257.601d(2), provides:

A person who commits a moving violation while operating a vehicle upon a highway or other place open to the general public, including, but not limited to, an area designated for the parking of motor vehicles, that causes serious impairment of a body function to another person is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment for not more than 93 days or a fine of not more than $500.00, or both.

         The trial court instructed the jury that to prove the charge, the prosecution had to establish beyond a reasonable doubt the following:

First, that the defendant committed one or more of the following moving violations: Failing to proceed through a flashing yellow signal with caution or failing to observe an authorized speed or traffic control sign, signal, or device; second, that the defendant's operation of the vehicle caused a serious impairment of a body function to James Scott Stivenson. Again, to cause such injury, the defendant's operation of a vehicle must have been a factual cause of the injury. That is, but for the defendant's operation of the vehicle, the injury would not have occurred. In addition, operation of the vehicle must have been a proximate cause of the injury, that is, the injury must have been a direct and natural result of operating the vehicle. [Emphasis added.]

         The trial court's instruction was a verbatim recitation of the model instruction, modified to include the specific moving violations charged in this case, as well as the name of the accident victim. See M Crim JI 15.19.

         The first part of the phrase in MCL 257.601d(2) has two predicates to the causation requirement because "operating a vehicle" is tied to "moving violation" through the word "while." Thus, neither a moving violation alone, nor the operation of a vehicle alone satisfies the statute; rather, both of those predicates must be present in conjunction with each other-a moving violation while operating a vehicle.

         The statute then has a causation requirement. The causation requirement is potentially ambiguous. What is it that must "cause" the injury: the conjoined "moving violation" while "operating a vehicle," or is merely "operating a vehicle . . . that causes serious impairment of a body function" sufficient? This issue is critical because M Crim JI 15.19 addresses causation as it relates to the operation of a vehicle but does not do so as to the moving violation.

         The general rule is that, based on common grammatical usage, "a modifying clause will be construed to modify only the last antecedent unless some language in the statute requires a different interpretation." People v Small, 467 Mich. 259, 263; 650 N.W.2d 328 (2002). If read that way, "causes serious impairment of a body function" would modify only "operating a motor vehicle" and would not modify "commits a moving violation." If that is the correct reading, then the moving violation requirement would not play a part in the causation analysis; that is, the statute would not require that the moving violation give rise to or cause the accident.

         In Schaefer, 473 Mich. 418, our Supreme Court interpreted a different statute as not requiring that the first predicate of that statute, being under the influence of alcohol, be a cause of an accident resulting in an injury. The statute at issue in Schaeffer, MCL 257.625, addresses Michigan's so-called "OUIL causing death statute," found in subsection (4). Id. at 427-428. That statute provides that "[a] person, whether licensed or not, who operates a motor vehicle in violation of [various subsections relating to alcohol or controlled substances], and by the operation of that motor vehicle causes the death of another person is guilty of a crime." (Emphasis added.) Based on that language, the Schaefer Court held that the statute has "no causal link between the defendant's intoxication and the victim's death." Id. at 431. "Accordingly, it is the defendant's operation of the motor vehicle that must cause the victim's death, not the defendant's 'intoxication.'" Id. (emphasis in original).

         The operative language of the statute at issue in Schaefer is quite different than the language of the statute at issue here. The present statute links the moving violation to the operation of the vehicle and thus requires that those linked elements cause the injury; the statute at issue in Schaefer, by contrast, unlinked a defendant's alcohol or drug use from the operation of the vehicle. As the Supreme Court noted in Schaefer, "Section 625(4) plainly requires that the victim's death be caused by the defendant's operation of the vehicle, not the defendant's intoxicated operation. Thus, the manner in which the defendant's intoxication affected his or her operation of the vehicle is unrelated to the causation element of the crime." Id. at 433. Here, by contrast, a moving violation "while operating" a vehicle must "cause" the "serious impairment of a body function."

         Moreover, if the first requirement, the moving violation, does not play a part in the causation analysis, then its occurrence in any particular case could be merely coincidental to the serious impairment of a body function, and yet a defendant would still be guilty of the offense. In other words, it would be the operation of the vehicle that would constitute the critical component of causation, but a defendant nevertheless would not be guilty of an offense unless, at a minimum, it just so happened that he or she also committed a moving violation. Of course, in some cases, such a moving violation could be completely unrelated to the resulting accident and injury. That lack of a causation requirement made sense as part of the overall statutory scheme in Schaefer because the Legislature sought to criminalize a status crime, driving while intoxicated. See id. at 433 n 46. Operating a motor vehicle, when the driver has the status of being intoxicated, is tailored to the conduct the Legislature wished to deter even absent a causation requirement.

         Here, however, violation of the statute is not tied to a status offense. Rather, the statute requires that a defendant have committed a particular predicate act, a moving violation. Thus, on the basis of its language, the statute supports an interpretation that the moving violation and operation of the motor vehicle together must cause the serious bodily injury, ...

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