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Michigan Juveniles Entitled Miller Montgomery Resentencing

by Mark Wilson

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit remanded a suit challenging Michigan juvenile life without parole (LWOP) statutes, to address the issues under the legal landscape established by the United States Supreme Court. On remand, the district court declared that the juveniles are entitled to the benefit of the seismic shift in the legal landscape caused by the United States Supreme Court.

Nine Michigan juvenile offenders sentenced to LWOP brought federal suit against state officials in 2010. They alleged that Michigan statutes imposing LWOP on juveniles and denying them parole eligibility violated the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution and customary international law.

After the district court granted Defendants' motion to dismiss the claims of all but one plaintiff on statute of limitation grounds, Plaintiffs amended their complaint to add four more juveniles who had been sentenced to LWOP.

Less than six months later, the United States Supreme Court held in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 2455 (June 25, 2012) that mandatory juvenile LWOP sentences violate the Eighth Amendment. The parties then filed cross motions for summary judgment in August 2012, addressing the impact of Miller.

The district court held on January 30, 2013, that: Miller applies retroactively to Plaintiffs; Michigan's statute denying them parole eligibility is unconstitutional under Miller and the Eighth Amendment; and Plaintiffs are entitled to some form of equitable relief from the challenged parole statute. The court requested that the parties submit supplemental briefing addressing the appropriate form of relief the court could "put in place to ensure that Plaintiffs receive a fair and meaningful opportunity to demonstrate that they are appropriate candidates for parole."

Defendants apparently interpreted the ruling as applying to only the named plaintiffs. They argued that they were free to continue enforcing the challenged parole statute against all other juveniles convicted of first-degree murder.

Plaintiffs sought clarification of the court's ruling. On August 12, 2013, the court held that its January 30, 2013 ruling was intended to apply to every juvenile sentenced to LWOP, not just the named plaintiffs. In light of that ruling, the court denied Plaintiffs' motion for class certification as moot.

Plaintiffs then asserted that defendants were continuing to enforce the challenged parole statute and were depriving prisoners of access to rehabilitation programs based on their purported ineligibility for parole. On November 26, 2013, the district court issued an injunction, ordering immediate compliance with Miller and directing defendants to take certain specified actions related to considering all juveniles for parole.

Defendants appealed the district court's order and the Sixth Circuit granted a stay of the injunction. While the appeal was pending, in 2014 the Michigan legislature enacted Public Act No. 22 in response to Miller. One section of the new law requires prosecutors to file motions if they intend to seek LWOP sentences against juveniles and for the court to hold hearings to determine whether such a sentence is appropriate under Miller. Another section which would become operational only if Miller was found to apply retroactively, authorized resentencing hearings for LWOP-sentenced juveniles. It limited the length of a remand sentence to maximum terms of 60 years and minimum terms of "not less than 25 years or more than 40 years."

On August 20, 2015, the Michigan Court of Appeals declared the new statutory scheme unconstitutional in part. See: People v. Skinner, N.W.2d, No. 317892, 2015 WL 4945986, at *12-20 (Mich Ct App. 2015). Skinner held that a jury rather than a judge must make the Miller findings required by the new legislation. It also held that the determination of "irreparable corruption" must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Michigan did not appeal Skinner to the Michigan Supreme Court and the State subsequently conceded that it is binding authority. See: People v. Zuniga, No. 324157, 2016 WL 620137, at *2 (Mich Ct App 2016).

On October 29, 2015, the Sixth Circuit held Michigan's appeal of the Miller injunction in abeyance, pending the Supreme Court's anticipated decision in Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (2016). The Court issued that decision on January 25, 2016, holding that Miller applies retroactively.

Following Montgomery, the parties informed the Sixth Circuit of Montgomery's impact on the Michigan litigation. Defendants argued that the case was moot because Montgomery triggered implementation of the Michigan legislation making juveniles eligible for resentencing. Plaintiffs disagreed, arguing that the legislative fix "is not a facially sufficient remedy" in the wake of Montgomery. The Sixth Circuit observed that the parties agreed that Montgomery made clear that Plaintiffs' mandatory LWOP sentences cannot stand.

Noting that the district court had not yet had the opportunity to consider the sufficiency of the legislative fix, the Sixth Circuit found that remand for further district court proceedings was the appropriate remedy.

"Montgomery and Miller make clear that courts may not impose mandatory life sentences without parole on juvenile offenders regardless of when an offender's conviction became final," the Court observed. "The district court has not yet had an opportunity to consider the legislative changes wrought by Michigan Public Act No. 22--portions of which the Michigan courts have already declared unconstitutional, see Skinner, 2015 WL 4945986 at *12-20 — or the Supreme Court's guidance in Montgomery. " As such, the Court vacated the district court's order and remanded with instructions to grant the parties leave to amend the pleadings and supplement the record. See: Hill v. Snyder, 821 F.3d 763 (6th Cir. 2016)

"The changes in the legal landscape that have occurred since the beginning of this case, although not cognizable here, should redound to Plaintiffs' benefit," the district court declared on remand. "Plaintiffs will receive individualized sentencing hearings in which the mitigating factors of youth will be considered for the first time. . . . At their sentencing hearings and upon appellate review, Plaintiffs will have the opportunity to fully present their constitutional claims, if necessary."

See: Hill v. Snyder, 2017 US Dist LEXIS 16865 (E.D. MI 2017) 

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Related legal case

Hill v. Snyder