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BlogsPublications | December 8, 2016
3 minute read

COA: Deliberately withholding information from police during criminal investigation may result in felony charge

It is one thing to plead the Fifth Amendment and make no statement to police at all, it is quite another to deliberately mislead police by making a statement that omits material information.  In People v Williams, No. 330853, the Court of Appeals held that a person who withholds material information in the course of making a statement to police during a criminal investigation runs the risk of being charged with a felony under MCL 750.479c. This provision makes it a felony to “[k]nowingly and willfully make any statement to [a] peace office [sic] that the person knows is false or misleading regarding a material fact in [a] criminal investigation.”  In this case, Jamari Williams said he and two friends were riding in a car the night of his pregnant girlfriend’s murder and divulged the stops they had made, but the police later found evidence that the car had parked briefly at her apartment—a stop Williams had not disclosed—and Williams later admitted that a fourth person was in the car.  This was sufficient to bind over the defendant for trial on the charge of misleading an officer.

When Jamari Williams discovered his pregnant girlfriend’s murdered body in their shared apartment, the police began an investigation that included questioning the defendant on his whereabouts that evening. Williams stated that he and two friends spent the evening riding around in a car. He also divulged several stops that the group made, but denied making any stops in addition to those that he revealed. He reiterated his account several times. The police later discovered that the car had parked at Williams’ apartment during the timeframe in which the murder likely occurred.  Williams eventually admitted that he neglected to tell officers about this stop and further indicated that he had forgotten about an additional person in the car.

The prosecution charged Williams with a felony under MCL 750.479c for knowingly and willfully making a false or misleading statement regarding a material fact to police during the course of a criminal investigation.  MCL 750.479c(1)(b) provides:

(1) Except as provided in this section, a person who is informed by a peace officer that he or she is conducting a criminal investigation shall not do any of the following:
. . .

(b) Knowingly and willfully make any statement to the peace officer that the person knows is false or misleading regarding a material fact in that criminal investigation.

Thus, the district court found probable cause to believe Williams had knowingly made a false or misleading statement and bound him over to circuit court as charged.  Williams challenged the bind over, but the circuit court agreed with the district court.  Williams appealed.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the district and circuit courts.  Guided by the ordinary definitions of “false and misleading,” the court concluded that the failure to disclose material facts in a statement as well as outright lies qualify as “false or misleading” under the statute. Thus, evidence that Williams failed to disclose to the officers the stop at his apartment on the night of the murder and the name of the fourth person in the car provided probable cause to believe the defendant violated 750.479c(1)(b). The court closed with a comment that the plain language of the statute allows for prosecution of persons “who deliberately mislead the police by withholding material information.”  

While the court’s closing comment suggests that withholding information alone is enough, it is clear from the bulk of the opinion and the statute that merely refusing to cooperate in the investigation is not enough.  The defendant must make a statement to fall within the purview of MCL 750.479c(1)(b), and the prosecution must prove the information omitted from that statement was deliberately withheld to mislead the officers.