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BlogsPublications | April 21, 2016
2 minute read

COA rules that a witness may be accompanied by a support animal when testifying

In People v. Johnson, No. 325857, the defendant made numerous challenges to the relatively new courtroom procedure of allowing a testifying witness to be accompanied by a support animal.  While no Michigan court had previously addressed this issue, the Court of Appeals agreed with the holdings in other jurisdictions which allowed this procedure as part of a trial court’s inherent authority to control the courtroom.

Defendant was convicted of four counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct with his niece.  During the defendant’s trial, a black Labrador retriever named Mr. Weeber was permitted to accompany the six-year-old victim and the victim’s 10-year-old brother to the witness stand while they testified.  On appeal of his conviction, the defendant raised numerous arguments against the use of the support animal.  The Court found that defendant waived any issues related to the use of the support animal by affirmatively approving of the trial court’s action.  However, the Court allowed defendant’s alternative argument that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel by his trial counsel’s failure to object to the notice of use of a support person that listed Mr. Weeber as a canine advocate.   More specifically, the defendant argued that MCL 600.2163a(4) only allows a support person to accompany a witness, not a support animal.  The Court found that a dog is not a “person” within the meaning of MCL 600.2163a(4).  Nonetheless, the Court held that the trial court had the inherent authority to utilize this courtroom procedure, finding that the existence of MCL 600.2163a does not preclude trial courts from using alternative procedures to protect and assist witnesses while testifying.

In addition, the Court disagreed with defendant’s contention that trial counsel should have objected to use of a support animal because it violated his constitutional right to due process.  The Court found that the challenged practice is neither inherently nor actually prejudicial, and thus, defendant’s right to due process was not violated.  The Court also struck down defendant’s argument that Defendant’s attorney should have requested a limiting instruction to the jury when the support animal was utilized.  Defendant’s convictions and sentences were affirmed.