Oakland Circuit Court Finds District Court Judges Cannot Impose Jail Sentence for a Probation Violation on MIP

Yesterday, Judge Kumar of the Oakland County Circuit Court put a stop to a practice that many District Court Judges throughout the state are doing. Prosecuting college students under the age of 21 for minor in possession has become the latest rage in District Courts. What used to be a fact of college life is now becoming a stigmatizing conviction that is actually putting a blemish on many college students in the employment arena. When a minor falls down on the conditions of his/her probation, many judges are legally straining to find ways to impose jail sentences without statutory authorization. The judges of the Rochester Hills District Court (home of Oakland University) have been particularly guilty on this front.

Daniel Sowell was a student at Oakland University who pled guilty without counsel to minor in possession. He was sentenced to eighteen months probation without the benefit of a deferral (e.g. he received a conviction on his record for the offense). The District Court sentenced Mr. Sowell to an eight day jail sentence sentence in the Oakland County Jail’s WWAM program. Judge Kumar of the Oakland County Circuit Court reversed the ruling stating that jail was not statutorily authorized for MIP violations.
People v Sowell, Oakland Circuit No. 09-DA-9011-AR.

Mr. Sowell received a show cause order from the Court why he shouldn’t be held in contempt for violating his probation. He was accused of missing two probation sessions when he returned to his out-of-state home on a scheduled break. The college dorms were closed at the time and Mr. Sowell testified that he had called probation ten to fifteen times and was given ambiguous instructions to “just complete the conditions of his probation.” When the Defendant returned to Michigan, he attempted to pay the fines which were refused because of a pending violation petition.

The District Court held a violation hearing and sentenced the Defendant to eight days in the WWAM program which was run by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department and appears to be incarcerative in nature. By the time of the hearing, the Defendant had already returned to Illinois and completion of the program would have been a burden. The District Court refused an alternate sentence. Because the MIP statute does not authorize a jail sentence, the Court attempted to justify its results with a contempt citation.

The Circuit Court found that while the Defendant might technically commit a contempt, a District Court could not use contempt to circumvent the legislative intent that minors in possession should not go to jail for a first offense violation. The Court reversed the jail sentence. Congratulations to JIm Amberg for his long hard fight on this issue.
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