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May 21, 2017

MSC grants MOAA regarding the admission of other-acts evidence under MRE 404(b) and whether MCL 168.937 creates the substantive offense of election forgery

The Michigan Supreme Court granted mini-oral argument to address two issues in  Michigan v Pinkney, No. 154374. First, whether the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted other-acts evidence of the defendant’s political and community activities under MRE 404(b) for the stated purpose of establishing his motive. Second, whether the Court of Appeals erred in determining that the section of the Michigan election law that provides a penalty for forgery, MCL 168.937, creates the substantive offense of election forgery.
 
The case concerns allegedly-forged recall petitions. Defendant, a resident of Benton Township, admitted that he circulated petitions submitted to recall James Hightower, the mayor of Benton Harbor, but he denied being the leader of the movement. After the petitions were submitted, Hightower raised concerns about the authenticity of the dates on the petitions. After investigating the issue, a forensic document examiner concluded that five of the petitions had altered dates, and a jury found defendant guilty.  Testimony was presented at trial concerning defendant’s personal political history to show his awareness of the recall-petition procedure, and thus, his knowledge of the need to alter dates. 
 
Defendant appealed on numerous grounds, but the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision. The appellate court justified the evidence that focused on defendant’s political and community activities as essential to uncover his motive for forging the documents, and concluded that the evidence served a proper purpose, was relevant to an issue of fact, and did not present a danger of unfair prejudice. Additionally, the court interpreted MCL 168.937 to include the substantive offense of election forgery. The court based its decision on the plain meaning of the statute and reasoned that to conclude otherwise would create surplus statutory language and lead to absurd results. 

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