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People v. Bensch

Court of Appeals of Michigan

April 30, 2019

JOSEPH ROBERT BENSCH, Defendant-Appellee.

          Lenawee Circuit Court LC No. 17-005792-AR

          Before: Tukel, P.J., and Beckering and Shapiro, JJ.

          Shapiro, J.

         The prosecution appeals by leave granted[1] the circuit court's ruling that defendant could decline probation and instead be sentenced to incarceration. The prosecution requests that we reject the rule first articulated in People v Peterson, 62 Mich.App. 258, 265; 233 N.W.2d 250 (1975) that permits criminal defendants to refuse probation. In the absence of a compelling reason to do so, we decline to overrule a longstanding rule of law that has been repeatedly relied on by this Court. Accordingly, we reaffirm Peterson and affirm the circuit court.[2]

         I. BACKGROUND

         Defendant's criminal convictions arose out of two separate drunk-driving incidents over the course of approximately five months, each of which resulted in its own district court case. In both cases, defendant reached a plea agreement whereby he pleaded guilty to operating while intoxicated, second offense, MCL 257.625(1). Defendant was sentenced for the offenses on the same day. The sentences imposed run concurrently.[3] In one of the cases, the district court sentenced defendant to one year in the county jail.[4] In the other case, the district court sentenced defendant to two years of probation with numerous conditions. Immediately after the district court ruled, defense counsel objected to the probationary sentence, arguing that "if Mr. Bensch doesn't wan[t] to be on probation . . . I don't think the court can put him there." The district court denied the objection.

         Defendant appealed by leave granted to the circuit court, where he argued that he could reject probation in favor of incarceration under Peterson, 62 Mich.App. at 265. Defendant contended that the district court erred by forcing him to accept a probationary sentence in the second case, thereby disregarding Peterson, which was controlling under the doctrine of stare decisis. The prosecutor, on the other hand, acknowledged that Peterson was binding on lower courts but attempted to factually distinguish it. The prosecutor also offered several policy arguments for why defendants should not be permitted to reject probation. After considering the issue, the circuit court held that the district court had erred by barring defendant from "waiv[ing] his privileges to probation[.]" Thus, the circuit court reversed and remanded for resentencing.


         If a court determines that a convicted defendant "is not likely again to engage in an offensive or criminal course of conduct and that the public good does not require that the defendant suffer the penalty imposed by law, the court may place the defendant on probation under the charge and supervision of a probation officer." [5] MCL 771.1(1). The Legislature has long described a trial court's decision to grant probation as "a matter of grace." See People v Sattler, 20 Mich.App. 665, 669; 174 N.W.2d 605 (1969).

         In Peterson, the defendant challenged the probation condition requiring her to submit to warrantless searches, i.e., searches that but for her probationary status would have been unconstitutional. Peterson, 62 Mich.App. at 265. This Court acknowledged that the defendant chose to accept the terms of probation: "Probation is a matter of grace and rejectable, we think, at the option of the probationer." Id. The Court nevertheless struck down the condition, determining that despite the ability to reject probation "the waiver of protection against unreasonable searches and seizures is so repugnant to the whole spirit of the Bill of Rights as to make it alien to the essence of our form of government." Id. at 266. The Court concluded that a "blanket search and seizure" provision amounts to a bill of attainder for the period of probation. Id. at 265.

         Judge Danhof dissented from this holding. His opinion, which was later adopted by this Court, argued that by accepting a sentence of probation carrying such a condition, the defendant voluntarily waived her Fourth Amendment rights. Id. at 270-272. In defining this approach, Judge Danhof agreed with the majority that "probation is 'rejectable'; that is, optional and essentially voluntary." Id. at 271. He explained, "A probationer or parolee has given his consent in return for more lenient treatment." Id. Thus, while the Peterson majority and dissent disagreed on whether a defendant could waive the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches, they agreed that a defendant could decline probation.

         If Peterson was the end of the story, we might be willing to address the question as essentially a matter of first impression.[6] However, the rule that defendants can reject probation has been accepted and relied on in subsequent cases in which a defendant agreed to probation but objected to a particular condition.[7]

         Not long after Peterson, the issue of warrantless probation searches arose again in People v Richards, 76 Mich.App. 695, 699; 256 N.W.2d 793 (1977). Adopting Judge Danhof's analysis, we found that there was no "constitutional barrier" to a warrantless-search condition of probation because the defendant had waived objection to this condition by accepting probation. Similarly, in People v Hellenthal, 186 Mich.App. 484, 486; 465 N.W.2d 329 (1990), [8] we rejected a Fourth Amendment challenge to a warrantless-search probation condition:

[A] waiver of one's constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures may properly be made a condition of a probation order where the waiver is reasonably tailored to a defendant's rehabilitation. As Judge Danhof recognized in his dissent in Peterson, "[a] probationer or parolee has given his consent in return for more lenient treatment." [Citations omitted.]

         In other words, we again reasoned that the warrantless-search condition of probation was constitutional because the defendant-by accepting probation-agreed to waive the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures.[9] Waiver is an intentional relinquishment of a known right. People v Kammeraad, 307 Mich.App. 98, 117; 858 N.W.2d 490 (2014). Thus, the underlying premise to Hellenthal is that a defendant consents to probation and can choose to reject it.

         We again employed this analysis in People v Oswald, 208 Mich.App. 444, 446; 528 N.W.2d 782 (1995), in which the defendant argued that a fine imposed by the trial court as a condition of probation was unauthorized. We held that the fine was authorized, but we also reasoned that

had defendant found the term of probation to be overly onerous, he could have declined the grant of probation, notified the court that he would not abide by the terms of probation, and submitted himself for sentencing directly under the retail fraud statute, with its limitation on the amount of fine that may be imposed. [Id.]

         Unpublished decisions from this Court have also relied on the fact that a defendant agrees to probation in resolving challenges to orders of probation.[10] These decisions are not binding precedent, MCR 7.215(C)(1), but it is clear that the rule that a defendant can elect to reject probation has been used by this Court (and others[11]) to dispose of arguments made by defendants challenging the terms of their probation. Under these circumstances, we decline to simply abandon that rule without a compelling reason to do so.[12]

         "[U]nder the doctrine of stare decisis, principles of law deliberately examined and decided by a court of competent jurisdiction should not be lightly departed." City of Coldwater v Consumers Energy Company, 500 Mich. 158, 161; 895 N.W.2d 154 (2017) (quotation marks and citation omitted). "The application of stare decisis is generally the preferred course, because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process." People v Tanner, 496 Mich. 199, 250; 853 N.W.2d 653 (2014) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Factors to consider in determining whether to overrule a decision include "whether the decision at issue defies 'practical workability,' whether reliance interests would work an undue hardship, and whether changes in the law or facts no longer justify the questioned decision." Id. at 250-251 (quotation marks and citation omitted).

         The prosecution does not identify any difficulties that have occurred as a result of defendants being able to refuse probation. Indeed, as a practical matter, we think it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of criminal defendants gladly welcome probation over incarceration and that the issue rarely arises. Further, it is questionable whether a trial court can find that a defendant who does not want to participate in probation "is not likely again to engage in an offensive or criminal course of conduct and that the public good does not require that the defendant suffer the penalty imposed by law . . . ." MCL 771.1(1). Nevertheless, the prosecution argues that Peterson "is no longer good law" because the three possible rationales for that decision have been repudiated. We disagree.

         The prosecution first argues that the "probation-as-contract theory," in which the court and the probationer are thought to have arrived at an arms-length bargain, has been rejected. Yet Peterson does not describe probation in contractual terms, and therefore this purported development in the law does not provide a basis to depart from that decision. Second, the prosecution argues that Peterson and its progeny rest on an outdated view of probation as being an "act of grace" and that we should reject that view. However, this argument runs afoul of the plain language of MCL 771.4, which provides that "[i]t is the intent of the legislature that the granting of probation is a matter of grace."[13] Third, the prosecution argues that probation is no longer considered a rehabilitative alternative to incarceration and is instead considered solely as a criminal punishment with the corresponding goals of retribution and deterrence. We disagree with this premise, but even accepting it as true, we fail to see how this warrants a change in longstanding law. If a defendant declines probation, the goals of the criminal justice system can still be accomplished through incarceration.

         The prosecution also contends that caselaw from other jurisdictions supports overruling Peterson. However, our review of that caselaw shows that states take a variety of approaches toward this issue. Some states allow a defendant to refuse probation. See e.g., People v Olguin, 45 Cal 4th 375; 198 P.3d 1, 4 (2008); State v Divan, 724 N.W.2d 865, 872; 2006 S.D. 105 (2006); State v McCready, 234 Wis.2d 110; 2000 WI.App. 68; 608 N.W.2d 762, 764 (2000). Other states do not. See e.g., State v Pawling, 9 Neb App 824; 621 N.W.2d 821, 826 (2000); State v Walton, 137 Ohio App 3d 450; 738 N.E.2d 1258, 1263 (2000); State v Estep, 854 S.W.2d 124, 127 (Tenn Crim App, 1992). At least one jurisdiction expressly provides by statute that "[a] person may not be put on probation without his consent," DC Code 16-710(a), while other jurisdictions have statutes that expressly provide that a defendant does not have the right to reject probation. Ala Code § 15-22-50; Or Rev Stat 137.010(5). Given that overview, we do not agree with the prosecution that Peterson has become an outdated nullity. To the contrary, numerous states agree that defendants should have the choice to participate in probation. For those reasons, we are not compelled to overrule Peterson based on out-of-state authority.

         MCL 771.1, the statute allowing a trial court to impose probation, has remained essentially the same since Peterson was decided. However, the prosecution contends that there are two probation programs in the Code of Criminal Procedure (the Code), MCL 760.1 et seq., that explicitly require a defendant's permission. From this the prosecution argues that when the Legislature wants to allow a defendant to refuse a sanction, it knows how to explicitly do so.

         The first probation program that the prosecution relies on took effect in 2013 as the "probation swift and sure sanctions act," Chapter XIA of the Code. 2012 PA 616. In 2017, the Legislature amended that chapter to include a subparagraph, which, according to the prosecution, provides that a defendant may decline to participate in this program. See MCL 771A.4(4)(a), added by 2017 PA 17. The prosecution is mistaken. The statute contains no specific provision that allows a defendant to decline the program. Rather, MCL 771A.4(4)(a) merely provides that if the jurisdiction in which the defendant has been convicted does not have a swift and sure probation program, and the court wishes to place the defendant in such a program operating in a different county, then the defendant must agree to the change of jurisdiction to another county.

         The other probation program to which the prosecution refers us to is the special alternative incarceration program, MCL 771.3b, which was added to the probation chapter (Chapter XI) of the Code in 1988. 1988 PA 286. Relevant to this appeal, that statutory section provides that "[a] person shall not be placed in a program of special alternative incarceration unless the person consents to the placement." MCL 771.3b(6). This provision is also inapposite. Special alternative incarceration can only be imposed as a condition of probation and the statute permits a defendant to object to that condition even if he otherwise "accepts" probation. See MCL 771.3b(1) (a special alternative incarceration program may be imposed "[i]n addition to any other terms or conditions of probation provided for under this chapter . . . ."). We do not see a conflict between the general ...

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