High court reverses fleeing, eluding convictions on lack of evidence

By Ben Solis
Stops by police that include even the most cursory of warrantless seizures must be justified by objectively reasonable, and particularized, suspicion of criminal activity, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in a 5-2 decision issued last Friday.

In an opinion written by Justice Megan Cavanagh, the high court’s majority reversed the affirmation of convictions and sentences for the defendant in People v. Prude (MSC Docket No. 165664). The majority – including Chief Justice Elizabeth Clement, Justice Richard Bernstein, Justice Elizabeth Welch and Justice Kyra Harris Bolden – also remanded the case to the Kalamazoo Circuit Court for an order of acquittal.
Justice David Viviano, joined by Justice Brian Zahra, dissented.

The case was granted leave without oral argument.

In Prude, the defendant was parked in an apartment complex parking lot that was known for frequent criminal activity. Police attempted to detain the man to investigate whether he was trespassing, but the defendant drove away. He was charged with and eventually convicted by a jury for second-degree fleeing and eluding, and for resisting arrest.

Both offenses required the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that police engaged the stop lawfully, but the defendant argued police lacked sufficient evidence of a reasonable basis of suspicion that he was trespassing.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the defendant, but Cavanagh wrote that the affirmation was an error and that the prosecution lacked the necessary evidence of suspicion.

“Without more, there is nothing suspicious about a citizen sitting in a parked car in an apartment complex parking lot while visiting a resident of that complex,” Cavanagh wrote. “Moreover, a citizen’s mere presence in an area of frequent criminal activity does not provide particularized suspicion that they were engaged in any criminal activity, and an officer may not detain a citizen simply because they decline a request to identify themselves. Even viewed together, these facts did not provide the officers in this case an objectively reasonable particularized basis for suspecting that the defendant was trespassing.”

Viviano criticized the majority for vacating the convictions without holding arguments on the application for leave to appeal. He wrote that the lower courts – including the unanimous Court of Appeals panel – did not err by determining that the officers had a reasonable suspicion.

“In this case, looking at the totality of circumstances in the light most favorable to the prosecution, the lower courts did not clearly err by finding that the officers had a reasonable suspicion that the defendant was trespassing,” Viviano wrote. “The officers were on directed patrol in a high-crime area at the request of the property owner, which is certainly a relevant contextual consideration. The officers in this case were very familiar with this particular apartment complex and had been there over a hundred times, including in the previous week, to investigate a full panoply of criminal activity. Specifically, the officers provided uncontradicted trial testimony that they had personally investigated and observed “almost on a nightly basis” similar criminal activity, i.e., trespass and loitering, at the exact location where defendant was stopped.”

Instead, Viviano and Zahra would have denied leave.