Michigan Supreme Court: Magistrates Can Assess Witness Credibility At Preliminary Exam

by: Matt Newburg

03/28/2018 07:49 AM EST

In People v Anderson, the Michigan Supreme Court has clarified the role of district court magistrates during a defendant’s preliminary examination, finding that magistrates can weigh the credibility of witness testimony when deciding whether to bind over a defendant for trial.

The Supreme Court held the magistrate in Anderson did not abuse her discretion in finding the complainant’s testimony was not credible and therefore dismissing the charges brought against the defendant.

“We hold that a magistrate’s duty at a preliminary examination is to consider all the evidence presented, including the credibility of witnesses’ testimony, and to determine on that basis whether there is probable cause to believe that the defendant committed a crime, i.e., whether the evidence presented is ‘sufficient to cause a person of ordinary prudence and caution to conscientiously entertain a reasonable belief of the accused’s guilt,’” the Supreme Court wrote.

Charges Dismissed

The defendant in the case allegedly pointed a gun at the complainant, the father of her child, while they were arguing inside a vehicle, and allegedly fired the gun at him as he exited the vehicle. The defendant was charged with assault with intent to commit murder, carrying a concealed weapon, felonious assault and felony-firearm.

After hearing the complainant’s testimony (the only evidence in the case) at the defendant’s preliminary exam, a 36th District Court magistrate found the testimony not credible and dismissed the charges. The Wayne County Circuit Court denied the prosecutor’s appeal.

The Court of Appeals affirmed in a 2-1 decision, in which one appellate judge dissented. The Court of Appeals majority concluded, “The district court did not abuse its discretion in refusing to bind defendant over to the circuit court because it was within the district court’s discretion to determine the credibility of the prosecution’s witness.”

Magistrates Must Consider All Evidence

On appeal, the Michigan Supreme Court rejected the prosecutor’s argument that the standard set forth in People v Lemmon, 456 Mich 625 (1998), should be applied to preliminary exams. In Lemmon, the Supreme Court limited a judge’s authority to assess witnesses’ credibility when ruling on a motion for a new trial.

“[W]e disagree with the prosecutor that a magistrate’s ‘duty’ to consider the credibility of witnesses’ testimony is inconsistent with the proposition that a magistrate should bind over a defendant if ‘there is a conflict of evidence or where there is a reasonable doubt as to his guilt,’” the Supreme Court wrote. “Rather, we believe this proposition is essentially an alternative articulation of the probable-cause standard for binding over a defendant in contrast to the standard for conviction at trial.”

According to the Supreme Court, it is a magistrate’s duty at a preliminary exam to consider all the evidence presented – including the credibility of both prosecution and defense witnesses’ testimony – and determine whether there is probable cause to believe the defendant committed a crime. If a witness’s lack of credibility, when considered with all the other evidence presented, is so insufficient that “a person of ordinary prudence and caution” would not reasonably believe the defendant committed a crime, then the magistrate may not bind over the defendant for trial, the justices explained.

However, the Supreme Court cautioned it was not suggesting that a magistrate may weigh witnesses’ credibility the same way that a jury does. “While a jury must find a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, a magistrate must only determine that there is probable cause to believe that the defendant has committed a crime,” the justices noted.

In conclusion, the Supreme Court specifically pointed to the magistrate’s reasons for finding the complainant’s testimony in this case not credible, including:

  • the complainant had a gun pointed at him, yet he sat in the vehicle “negotiating” for his Christmas gifts.
  • the complainant willingly got into the vehicle with the defendant, despite having been threatened by her in the past and not having access to a cell phone.
  • the complainant never called the police to report the defendant’s previous alleged threats.
  • the complainant’s testimony was “all over the place everywhere.”

“These reasons, considered in light of the magistrate’s superior ability to observe the demeanor of the complainant while testifying, afforded the magistrate a ‘principled’ basis for concluding that the complainant’s testimony was not credible and therefore her credibility determination was not ‘outside the range of principled outcomes,’” the Supreme Court concluded. “Because there was no other evidence upon which the magistrate could find probable cause to bind over defendant, the magistrate did not abuse her discretion by dismissing the complaint.”

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