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A Better Partnership
April 27, 2016

“Legal act” requirement still met when conspiracy participants agree to commit an illegal act in an illegal manner

In People v. Seewald, No. 150146, the Michigan Supreme Court decided the meaning and effect of “legal act” under Michigan’s conspiracy statute, MCL 750.157a, which provides that a person is guilty of conspiracy when he or she conspires with one or more persons to commit a legal act using illegal means.  In particular, the Court looked at whether the commission of an illegal act using illegal means constitutes the crime of conspiracy.  The Michigan Supreme Court held that the term “legal act” is properly interpreted as referring to the lawfulness of the act in general, and thus, conspiracies to commit an illegal act in an illegal manner falls within the statute.
 
Defendant and alleged coconspirator Don Yowchuang worked in the district office of former Congressman Thaddeus McCotter during McCotter’s 2012 reelection campaign.  Michigan election law required McCotter to submit at least 1,000 valid voter signatures before he could be placed on the ballot.  The day before the nominating petitions were due, the defendant and Yowchuang realized that several of the petitions had not been signed by their circulator, as required by law, and agreed to sign the petitions as circulators even though they had never circulated the petitions themselves.  Defendant was charged with conspiracy for agreeing to submit nominating petitions by falsely signing the petitions as the circulator.  In deciding whether the conspiracy charge could provide a basis for a bindover, the prosecution argued that submitting nominating petitions with valid signatures is, in the abstract, a legal act.  Defendant argued instead that there had never been an agreement to commit a legal act because while submitting nominating petitions with valid voter signatures is generally legal, the voter signatures on the petitions would become invalid by operation of law once he and Yowchuang falsely signed them and their submission would therefore be illegal.  In other words, the defendant argued that it was impossible, on the facts of the case, to have done the legal act alleged (submitting nominating petitions) because the illegal means alleged (false signing) made the legal act illegal.
 
The Court concluded that the text and structure of MCL 750.157a make clear that the Legislature intended to criminalize both conspiring to commit an offense prohibited by law and conspiring to commit a legal act in an illegal manner.  A contrary interpretation would drain all meaning from the legal-act prong of the conspiracy statute and render part of the statute nugatory.  Therefore, the Court of Appeals erred by concluding that the illegality of the means (signing falsely) tainted the ends (submitting nominating petitions) and made those ends illegal too and that there accordingly was no legal act at all or any agreement to perform one.

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