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February 14, 2017

MSC grants MOAA on whether trial courts must read jury instructions aloud

In People v. Traver, No. 154494, the Michigan Supreme Court granted mini-oral argument to consider whether a trial court must read aloud jury instructions concerning the elements of charged offenses. The Court will also hear argument on several other related questions, including the proper jury instruction for a felony-firearm charge, whether a defendant waives any claims regarding improper jury instruction when the defendant’s attorney expresses satisfaction with the instructions at trial, and whether the Court of Appeals was correct to order a Ginther hearing in this circumstance.  
 
At trial, a jury convicted the defendant on charges of assault with a dangerous weapon and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony.  On appeal, defendant argued that although the trial court provided the jurors with written instructions reciting the elements of the charged offenses, it failed to read aloud the elements of the two counts on which he was found guilty.  Defendant further complained that the instructions as given were defective.  The Court of Appeals agreed, and reversed defendant’s convictions and remanded for a new trial, maintaining that trial courts are required to provide juries with spoken instructions of the elements of a charged crime. It reasoned that under applicable court rules, written instructions serve as an adjunct to the spoken instructions. As such, a trial court may not simply skip the reading-aloud step by merely handing the jurors a document listing the elements of the charged crimes.

Furthermore, the Court of Appeals held that the written instructions given to the jury were defective.  While the written information regarding the felony-firearm charge covered the issue of possession, it said nothing at all about the actual offense of felony-firearm.  The Court relied on People v Duncan, 462 Mich 47; 610 NW2d 551 (2000), in which the Michigan Supreme Court stated that a complete failure to instruct the jury regarding any of the elements of a charged offense constitutes automatic reversal.  Because the trial court never instructed the jury regarding the elements of the crimes and then provided inaccurate written instructions regarding the elements of felony-firearm, the Court of Appeals reversed both of defendant’s convictions.
 
Additionally, the defendant asserted that ineffective assistance of counsel tainted his decision to withdraw a guilty plea that would have avoided incarceration. The Court of Appeals ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the defendant’s counsel adequately advised him of the consequences of withdrawing his guilty plea.
 
In granting mini-oral argument on the application, the Court asked the parties to address five questions:
 
(1) whether the trial court erred by providing written instructions to the jury on the elements of the charged offenses but not reading those instructions aloud to the jury;
 
(2) whether the trial court’s instructions on the charge of possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, MCL 750.227b, fairly presented the issues to be tried and adequately protected the defendant’s rights;
 
(3) whether the defendant waived any instructional errors when his attorney expressed satisfaction with the instructions as given;
 
(4) what standard of review this Court should employ in reviewing the Court of Appeals decision to order an evidentiary hearing on the ineffective assistance of counsel claim; and
 
(5) whether the Court of Appeals erred under the applicable standard when it ordered an evidentiary hearing for defendant to establish the factual predicate for his claim that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to properly advise him of the potential consequences of withdrawing his guilty plea.

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