The not so long arm of the law

Court of Appeals case looks at proper venue for trial

By Agenique Smiley
BridgeTower Media Newswires

DETROIT — The “arm” of the law isn’t as long as most people think. Both jurisdiction and venue must be proper before a person can be dragged into court. The latter was the issue that the Court of appeals grappled with in People v. McBurrows.

In McBurrows, the Court of Appeals reversed the Monroe County Circuit Court’s ruling that Monroe County was a proper venue for defendant Romon McBurrows to stand trial for an alleged offense that took place in Detroit.

In a two-part holding, the panel held that because the charged felony — delivery of a controlled substance — was completed in Wayne County, venue was proper in Wayne County only unless the Monroe County prosecutor could prove that an exception to this general rule applies.


‘People v McBurrows’

On Dec. 12, 2016, Nicholas Abraham called William Ingall and told him that he was coming over because he wanted to get some heroin. Later that night, the two drove in Abraham’s pickup truck to a house in Detroit to buy heroin from the defendant, according to the Court of Appeals opinion.

When they arrived, Ingall called McBurrows on his cell phone and told him that he wanted to “get some heroin.” Abraham gave Ingall $100 and waited in the truck while he went and purchased the drugs. Ingall gave McBurrows $100 and he gave him some heroin that was wrapped in paper, according to the opinion.

Ingall walked back to the pickup truck, then the two went to a nearby laundromat and used some heroin, the opinion stated. Ingall commented to Abraham how strong it was and told him to “be careful with it.” The two drove back to Monroe County, Abraham dropped Ingall off at Ingall’s home.

At approximately 10 p.m., Abraham put down two lines of heroin and told his wife Michelle Abraham to snort the drug. She passed out.

When she regained consciousness, she noticed that Abraham was not breathing. She tried unsuccessfully to revive him. He was pronounced dead during the morning hours on Dec.13, 2016. An autopsy revealed that the cause of death was fentanyl toxicity.

McBurrows was charged with one count of delivery of fentanyl causing death and bound over to the Monroe Circuit Court. Defendant moved for summary disposition for lack of “jurisdiction” based on the argument that the only “act” alleged — delivery of the fentanyl — occurred in Wayne County.

The trial court denied the motion and ruled that he can be tried in both Monroe and Wayne because the elements of the charged offense happened in both counties and because the “mortal wound” was inflicted in Monroe County.


The question of completion

The Court of Appeals reasoned that a defendant’s criminal act is complete upon delivery of the controlled substance — criminal liability attaches at that point — and the defendant need not commit any further acts causing the occurrence of any specific result. In McBurrows, the specific result being Abraham’s death by drug overdose.

Based on this reasoning, the court held that venue was properly vested in Wayne County because McBurrows’ alleged offense — delivery of a controlled substance — was completed within the boundaries of Wayne County.

The panel further held that venue could only be proper in Monroe County if authorized by an applicable exception to the general rule that venue lies in the county where the crime was committed.


‘Multiple acts’

The Monroe prosecutor believed that venue was proper in both Wayne and Monroe counties because the alleged crime had multiple acts and at least one of those acts — Abraham’s death — occurred in Monroe County.
The prosecution proceeded under MCL 762.8, which states that, “whenever a felony consists of two or more acts done in perpetration of that felony, the felony may be prosecuted in any county where any of those acts are committed….”

“We believe that proving the drugs that were purchased caused the death should be paramount in the determination of whether a crime is completed and, ultimately, whether venue is proper,” explained Monroe County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Brown.

The crux of the prosecution’s argument was, although the delivery of the heroin occurred in Wayne, the consumption — which was the catalyst that caused Abraham’s death — occurred in Monroe, therefore, venue should be proper in both Monroe and Wayne counties. The prosecution argues that McBurrows’ alleged felony — delivery of a controlled substance with the effect of causing death — wasn’t completed until Abraham’s death.

“Abraham’s death should be treated as more than just a sentencing enhancement,” asserted Monroe County Prosecutor William Nichols. “It should be an element of an actual crime.”

What the prosecutor is referring to is the Court of Appeals’ holding that Abraham’s death resulted in McBurrows being held in violation of MCL 730.317a, which only subjected him to a harsher sentence, not an additional offense.


‘In perpetration of that felony’

McBurrows’ counsel Noel Erinjeri argued that Abraham’s death was not an “act” but a “result” or “effect” of his own act. As he explains in his trial brief, Erinjeri believes that Abraham did not “commit” or “carry out” any act to facilitate McBurrows’ alleged delivery of the fentanyl.

He further argues that the prosecution’s reliance on MCL 762.8 is misplaced as it is arguing that Abraham’s “act in perpetration” (the consumption of the heroin) took place hours after a felony that took place, by a different person, in a different county. He concluded that the alleged delivery, the felony, was completed in Wayne County before Abraham consumed the drugs.


On appeal

The Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office plans to appeal the Court of Appeals’ decision. “This case is of significance,” commented Nichols. The Monroe prosecutor’s office is working in partnership with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, which is co-prosecuting the case. The Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan has also filed an amicus brief in support of the Monroe prosecutor’s brief with the Michigan Supreme Court.