Court Decisions Recognizing Strict Liability

In Berry v. Michigan Racing Com’r, a licensed trainer of harness racehorses entered two horses in separate races in 1981.[65] A urinalysis of the horses found evidence of a prohibited substance in each horse. The trainer’s license was suspended for two years pursuant to the “insurer rule,” which imposed absolute responsibility for the condition of the horses upon the trainer.[*] The Court of Appeals pointed out the public interest in protecting the wagering public from fraud or corruption, along with the state’s economic interest in preserving the business. Those interests, combined with the language of the statute indicating that trainers are ultimately responsible for guaranteeing the conditions of their horses, led the court to conclude that the statute imposed strict liability for violations.

In People v. Quinn, the Michigan Supreme Court held that knowing whether a firearm was loaded or not was not required to convict someone for transporting a loaded weapon in a vehicle.[66] The defendant argued that the law should require a showing of knowledge that a firearm was loaded in order to exclude application of the law to innocent violations. While the court acknowledged that the law required knowledge of the presence of a firearm, it held that the duty imposed by the statute is to protect the public from accidental discharge, irrespective of whether the individual knew the firearm was loaded. Thus, proof that a defendant knew the transported firearm was loaded was not required.

In People v. Likine, the Michigan Supreme Court held that the failure to pay court-ordered child support is a strict-liability offense.[67] The court looked to the history of the statute in reaching this determination; a previous version of the statute stated that a father or husband would be guilty of a felony if he refused or neglected to pay court-ordered support. The law was amended in 1999 and the relevant portion of the statute stated: “[I]f the court orders an individual to pay support ... for a child of the individual, and the individual does not pay the support ... the individual is guilty of a felony ... .”[68] Given the Legislature’s removal of language concerning refusal or neglect, the court determined that the Legislature intended to impose strict liability.

Earlier cases offered guidance on what offenses would be considered public welfare offenses. A bar keeper was convicted when alcohol was sold in his bar on Sunday without his knowledge.[69] In People v. Hatinger, the Supreme Court held that a statute’s purpose would be defeated if the state were required to prove guilty knowledge for the sale of intoxicating liquor or impure foods.[70]

The variety of statutes enacted by the Legislature occasionally results in inconsistent application of the analysis of strict-liability offenses. For example, in People v. Schumacher, Kenneth Schumacher was convicted of the unlawful disposal of scrap tires, and was sentenced to 270 days in jail and a $10,000 fine.[71] The disposal of scrap tires is regulated by the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, a comprehensive statutory scheme designed to protect the state’s environment and natural resources.[72] On appeal, the defendant argued that the statute did not impose strict liability.

The Court of Appeals determined that the statute pertinent to this case “contains no language from which it may be inferred that guilty knowledge is a required element for offending [the statute’s] mandate[.]”[73] Based on statute’s silence regarding intent, the court held that the statute created a public welfare offense.

The Schumacher ruling seemingly reversed the presumption of mens rea and held that legislative silence is a strong indication that strict liability should be imposed.[†] While no cases have cited Schumacher for this proposition, a trend in this direction could seriously erode Michigan’s mens rea jurisprudence.

[*] This statute was subsequently repealed by P.A.1995, No. 279, § 35.

[†] The Michigan Supreme Court declined to review the Court of Appeals decision. People v. Schumacher, 480 Mich. 1043 (2008).