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146496 - People v LaFountain (Suzanne)

The People of the State of Michigan,
 
Bruce H. Edwards
 
Plaintiff-Appellee,
 
v
(Appeal from Ct of Appeals)
 
 
(Cheboygan – Pavlich, S.)
 
Suzanne Fay LaFountain,
 
Desiree M. Ferguson
 
Defendant-Appellant.
 

Summary

​A young boy, thinking his mother had called him, walked into her bedroom to discover her injecting herself with drugs. The boy, who usually lived with his father, was staying with his mother, Suzanne LaFountain, and her boyfriend, Matthew Fischer, for the summer at the home of Fischer’s mother. LaFountain and Fischer stayed across the hall from the bedroom where the boy and his younger sister slept. According to the boy’s later testimony in LaFountain’s trial, he also saw her and Fischer shaking up two-liter pop bottles in their bedroom, consistent with a method of methamphetamine production.

The boy reported what he saw to the authorities. A Child Protective Services worker who visited the house observed items, some around the house and some outside, that she thought might be associated with methamphetamine production. LaFountain denied using any drugs and agreed to a mouth swab drug test; she tested positive for amphetamines, methamphetamine, morphine, hydromorphine and Tramadol.

Alerted by the CPS worker, police officers went to the house and spoke to Fischer’s mother, who told them they could search some trash cans behind the house. After finding materials consistent with the clandestine manufacture of methamphetamine, the police obtained a search warrant. In their search of the house, the officers discovered materials used during the early phases of meth production in LaFountain’s bedroom; they also collected syringes and spoons consistent with drug use. They found no methamphetamine, but did detect some meth residue on coffee filters found in that bedroom. In the children’s bedroom, officers found three old military rifles, unloaded and without ammunition, behind the door. The investigating officer testified that he spoke with someone who said that the guns were his, but the officer could not recollect his name.

LaFountain and Fischer were charged with 1) operating or maintaining a meth lab involving a firearm, 2) operating or maintaining a meth lab in the presence of a minor, 3) operating or maintaining a meth lab involving the generation of hazardous waste, 4) possession of meth, and 5) maintaining a drug house. LaFountain was notified that her prior conviction for cocaine possession doubled the possible sentence that she faced.

At LaFountain’s trial, Fischer – who had earlier pleaded guilty to maintaining a methamphetamine laboratory involving a firearm – testified that LaFountain had nothing to do with manufacturing meth at the house. Fischer’s mother also testified, saying that she never saw LaFountain involved in manufacturing drugs, and LaFountain testified that, although she used drugs, she was not involved in their manufacture. LaFountain also argued that there was no evidence to show that the rifles the police discovered had anything to do with the drugs found in the house.

A jury found LaFountain guilty on the first four counts of the complaint (three counts involving the operation of a meth lab and one count for meth possession). The circuit judge decided not to double the guidelines range, which was 42-70 months, but imposed concurrent sentences of 4 to 50 years for operating a lab involving a weapon, 4 to 40 years for operating a lab in the presence of a minor, 4 to 40 years for operating a lab involving hazardous waste, and 4 to 20 years for possessing methamphetamine. LaFountain made a motion to correct her sentence, reminding the court that it had earlier agreed that she could only be convicted of one of the operating counts, which amounted to alternative versions of the same offense. The prosecutor agreed, and the judge entered an order vacating the convictions for counts 2, 3 and 4. An amended judgment of sentence stated that LaFountain would serve a single sentence of 4 to 50 years for operating a lab involving a firearm.

LaFountain appealed, but in an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeals upheld her conviction and sentence.

LaFontain argued there was insufficient evidence to support her conviction for operating or maintaining a methamphetamine laboratory involving a firearm. The appellate court disagreed: “There is no question that a methamphetamine lab was being operated inside the house, nor is there any question that firearms were inside the house. Therefore, there was sufficient evidence to permit a rational jury to conclude that defendant was guilty of operating or maintaining a methamphetamine laboratory involving a firearm.”

Under MCL 333.7401c(2)(e), a defendant guilty of operating or maintaining a methamphetamine laboratory faces an enhanced sentence “[i]f the violation involves the possession, placement, or use of a firearm or any other device designed or intended to be used to injure another person[.],” the Court of Appeals explained. The prosecution did not need to show that LaFountain had “actual dominion” over the rifles; it was enough if the evidence established “proximity to the firearm” and “some objective indicia of control.”

The prosecution had satisfied both requirements, the panel said. The fact that the rifles were across the hall from LaFountain’s bedroom established proximity, and there was ample circumstantial evidence that she knew the rifles were in her children’s room, hence had “constructive possession,” or control, of the guns.

The Court of Appeals also rejected LaFountain’s argument that the rifles were not “involved” with the operation or maintenance of the methamphetamine laboratory. “No such requirement … is found in the plain language of the statute. MCL 333.7401c(2)(e) prohibits the possession of a firearm as part of the operation of a methamphetamine lab, not just the use of a firearm.”

The panel also upheld the sentencing judge’s scoring of Prior Record Variable 7 (“PRV 7”) at ten points. Under PRV 7, ten points are scored when “the offender has 1 subsequent or concurrent conviction.” MCL 777.57(1)(a), (b).

“Here, defendant was convicted of four felonies following her trial by jury. As such, there is evidence of record to support the trial court’s discretionary scoring of ten points for PRV 7. While three of defendant’s convictions were subsequently vacated by the trial court, there is nothing in the statutory language to suggest that this action would invalidate a conviction for the purposes of scoring PRV 7. … [T]he sentencing court was well aware of the status of the vacated convictions at the time of sentencing, and would be faced with no new information on remand that would alter its sentencing calculations.”

LaFountain appealed, and in a May 22, 2013 order, the Supreme Court granted leave to appeal. The Court directed the parties to “address: (1) whether the presence of a firearm in a room that was accessed by the defendant is sufficient to prove a charge under MCL 333.7401c for a violation that ‘involves the possession, placement or use of a firearm’ if the defendant occupied another room where methamphetamine was manufactured within a residence owned and possessed by another; and (2) whether points may be assessed for prior record variable 7 (PRV 7), MCL 777.57, where the defendant was convicted by a jury of charges that were subsequently vacated by the trial court.”