Skip to Main Content
BlogsPublications | June 27, 2017
5 minute read

COA holds that third-degree child abuse statute is not unconstitutionally vague

The Michigan statute defining the crime of third-degree child abuse is not unconstitutionally vague, said the Michigan Court of Appeals in People v Lawhorn, No. 330878. The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and sentence of defendant, the mother of Kent County’s youngest convicted killer, Jamarion Lawhorn.

During Jamarion’s murder trial, it surfaced that defendant abused Jamarion. Testimony showed that Jamarion killed another child and afterward claimed that he hated his life and nobody loved him. The prosecution in the instant case arose as a result of the abuse allegations. The jury convicted defendant of third-degree child abuse after testimony revealed that defendant admitted to “whupping” the victim with a belt, hitting the victim too hard, and causing him to have permanent marks on his body. The court sentenced defendant to one year in jail and sixty months of probation.

Defendant appealed, arguing that her child abuse conviction should be vacated because the third-degree child abuse statute, MCL 750.136b, is unconstitutionally vague, did not provide fair notice of the prohibited conduct, and was so indefinite that it gave unstructured and unlimited discretion to the trier of fact to determine whether a child-abuse offense was actually committed. The Court of Appeals disagreed on all three charges and affirmed her conviction.

MCL 750.136b states that a person is guilty of child abuse in the third degree if the person knowingly or intentionally causes physical harm to a child or knowingly or intentionally commits an act that under the circumstances poses an unreasonable risk of harm or injury to a child, resulting in physical harm to the child. However, consistent with this statute, a parent may take steps to reasonably discipline a child, which may include the use of reasonable force. Defendant contended that the statutory definition of “physical harm” as “any injury to a child’s physical condition” was too vague. The Court disagreed.  In relying on the ordinary definitions of the statute’s operable words, it concluded that a person of ordinary intelligence would not have to speculate to understand the nature of the physical harm prohibited by the statute. Instead, a person of ordinary intelligence would understand that in physically disciplining a child, he or she must act in a manner that is reasonable and not excessive. This meant the statute was not vague because it provided fair notice of the prohibited conduct.

Next, the court determined that the provision of the statute that allows parents and guardians to use reasonable force when physically disciplining children provided a sufficient standard to prevent the statute from being applied in a subjective manner by law enforcement, judges, or juries. The Court followed case law that had held that applying a reasonable person standard provides fair notice of prohibited conduct and prevents enforcement abuses. In addition, the court stated that the statute’s scienter requirement—that physical harm to the child be caused “knowingly or intentionally”—further alleviated any vagueness concerns. Given that the defendant beat her son with a belt to the point of causing scars, the court held that is was reasonable for the jury to have concluded that the defendant knowingly and intentionally caused an injury to the child’s physical condition that was outside the range of reasonableness.

As an additional grounds of appeal, the defendant challenged her sentence of one year in jail as unreasonable because her minimum guidelines range was zero to eleven months. The appeals court disagreed once again. It held that because the defendant was sentenced after the Michigan Supreme Court’s opinion in People v Lockridge, the trial court was no longer bound by the sentencing guidelines. Thus, the court reviewed the trial court’s upward departure from the sentencing guidelines for reasonableness under the “principle of proportionality” test adopted in People v Milbourn. This test requires that a sentence be proportionate to the seriousness of the circumstances surrounding the offense and the offender. Under this rule, sentence departures are appropriate where the guidelines do not adequately account for legitimate factors considered at sentencing. The court then noted several factors that courts have considered in applying the proportionality standard, including (1) the seriousness of the offense; (2) factors that were inadequately considered by the sentencing guidelines; and (3) factors not considered by the guidelines.

The Court of Appeals determined that the trial court properly considered several factors in justifying the defendant’s upwards departure sentence. First, the victim of the defendant’s abuse, her son, murdered another child and subsequently told the 911 dispatcher that he hated his life, had taken many pills, and felt like nobody loved him. Therefore, the trial court correctly contemplated the likely detrimental effect that the defendant’s treatment of the victim and the accompanying home environment had on the victim. Second, the trial court properly considered that the defendant must have known that the victim’s stepfather beat him as well because this factual finding was supported by a preponderance of the evidence. Third, the trial court noted that regardless of whether the defendant used cocaine, it was highly likely that the defendant knew cocaine was in the house where abuse occurred. And fourth, the trial court properly considered the deplorable and unsafe conditions inside the home and the defendant’s history of abuse and neglect.

Because the Court of Appeals concluded that all of the above factors considered by the trial court related to the nature of the offense and the background of the offender, it held that it was proper for the sentencing court to consider these factors. In addition, the court held that the trial court could have reasonably found that the severity of the impact of the defendant’s conduct on the victim received inadequate weight under the guidelines calculation. Although the guidelines accounted for some degree of harm suffered by the victim, the appeals court noted that the trial court could have reasonably concluded that the factors it considered, especially the effects of the defendant’s behavior on the victim that culminated in the victim's stabbing of another child, were not adequately considered in the guidelines calculation. Thus, the Court of Appeals affirmed defendant's sentence because it fulfilled the principle of proportionality and was reasonable.