Court Decisions Recognizing a Mens Rea Element

In People v. Trotter, the Court of Appeals examined the validity of Michigan’s “dangerous animals” statute.[48] The defendant was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after her two bullterriers attacked and killed her 2-year-old nephew. The defendant argued that the statute violated due process by creating a strict-liability crime. The court disagreed with the defendant’s characterization of the statute, holding instead that the Legislature intended to codify an aspect of the common-law offense of manslaughter (death that results from gross negligence), and therefore, read mens rea into the statute.[49] Noting that one of the bullterriers had previously bitten a visitor, the court upheld the conviction.

In People v. Lardie, the Michigan Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals decision that had held that driving while intoxicated and causing death of another was a strict-liability, public welfare offense with no requirement for the prosecution to prove mens rea.[50] The Supreme Court stated that the “operating while intoxicated” crime at issue was not a public welfare offense as those offenses “are designed to protect the public welfare by placing the burden of protecting society on a person otherwise innocent but standing in responsible relation to public danger.”[51] Additionally, the court noted that penalties for public welfare crimes are typically small and do not inflict substantial harm to a person’s reputation.

The Supreme Court held in Lardie that the Legislature intended that general intent must be proven for a conviction for driving while intoxicated, which could be shown, for example, by proving that the defendant knowingly consumed alcohol or a controlled substance and acted voluntarily in deciding to drive.

In People v. Jensen, the Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of an HIV-positive woman who failed to inform a sexual partner of her condition, in violation of Michigan law.[52] The defendant argued that the law was unconstitutional, because it contained no mens rea requirement. She also argued that the law should require a showing of specific intent to harm the victim. Relying on Lardie, the court reasoned that the Legislature intended to require some type of intent as a predicate to a conviction, and that by engaging in unprotected sexual contact, “the requisite intent is inherent in the HIV-infected person’s socially and morally irresponsible actions.”[53] The court expressly noted that the statute does not impose strict liability as an infected person is free to have sexual contact provided his or her partner is informed.[54]

The Court of Appeals held that using a counterfeit cigarette tax stamp was not a public welfare offense in People v. Nasir.[55] The defendant, a party store manager, had been convicted and sentenced to 18 to 120 months’ imprisonment after the trial court ruled that the Michigan statute imposes strict liability. The appeals court reasoned that the tax stamp law is a revenue law, and the harm to the public at large from the loss of revenue is not severe enough to hold violators strictly liable. Further, the severity of the punishment could inflict substantial damage to a defendant’s reputation.[56] Finally, the court reasoned that imposing strict liability in such cases as these could criminalize “a broad range of apparently innocent conduct.”[57] For example, an innocent retail customer could buy a pack of cigarettes bearing a counterfeit stamp and be held liability under a strict reading of the law.[58]

In People v. Tombs, the Michigan Supreme Court examined whether a statute prohibiting the distribution or promotion of child sexually abusive material required that the act be performed with criminal intent.[59] Upon leaving the company, a former Comcast employee returned his work computer. Child pornography material was subsequently discovered on that computer and the former employee admitted to obtaining the files. The individual was charged and convicted of distributing or promoting child sexually abusive material and possessing the material.[60]

The court held that since the statute forbidding the distribution and promotion of child sexually abusive material did not include an explicit mens rea requirement, a longstanding principle applied: that absent an indication from the Legislature that it wanted to dispense with a criminal intent element, criminal statutes are presumed to include such a requirement.[61] Noting the statute’s use of active terms — “distribute,” “promote,” and “receives for the purpose of distributing or promoting” — the Supreme Court concluded that the Legislature contemplated intentional conduct by the accused.[62] Omitting a mens rea requirement, wrote the court, could result in a conviction of a person who lacked the criminal intent to distribute child sexually abusive material. For example, the Comcast employees who discovered the material on the defendant’s computer who transferred the files among themselves and then to the police could be charged and convicted under a strict liability statute, though their only desire was to turn the matter over to law enforcement. The court concluded that the Legislature “intended that criminal intent to distribute be an element” of a conviction under the statute.[63]

Reviewing the facts of the case, the Supreme Court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support a conviction for distribution or promotion of child sexually abusive material. The evidence indicated that the defendant did not expect his former employer to discover the material, but that it would be destroyed during a routine reformatting of the computer’s hard drive.[64] Nevertheless, the defendant’s conviction for the lesser offense of possessing the illicit images was upheld.