A jury convicted defendant Kris Edward Siterlet of operating a motor vehicle while visibly impaired, third offense. The trial court sentenced Siterlet as a fourth habitual offender to serve 46 to 300 months in prison.
On appeal, Siterlet challenged the trial court’s authority to sentence him as a fourth habitual offender where the prosecutor twice amended the notice of intent to seek an enhanced sentence to change Siterlet’s habitual-offender level. MCL 769.13 allows a prosecuting attorney to seek an enhanced sentence by filing written notice of his intent to do so within 21 days after a defendant’s arraignment or, if the arraignment is waived, within 21 days after the filing of the information. In this case, the prosecutor originally gave notice that Siterlet would be sentenced as a fourth habitual offender. But the notice was amended during plea negotiations, to reduce Siterlet’s status to third habitual offender. Siterlet rejected all plea offers and the case went to trial, with the third habitual offender amendment in place. In certain pretrial motions, the prosecutor asserted that Siterlet was a fourth habitual offender (and defense counsel admitted as much), but the notice was never amended. Four days after trial, the prosecutor filed a second amended felony information elevating Siterlet’s habitual status from third habitual offender back to fourth habitual offender. The prosecutor did not seek leave to amend the habitual status notice from the trial court. Siterlet did not object, and the trial court sentenced him as a fourth habitual offender to serve 46 to 300 months in prison.
Siterlet raised the issue of the invalid habitual notice amendment for the first time on appeal. He argued that the prosecutor’s amendment fell outside the 21-day period set forth in MCL 769.13, and was invalid. He also argued that he was prejudiced by the amendment, which did not take placed until after the jury convicted him. He claimed that the plea negotiations in this case were premised on the assumption that, if the jury convicted him, he would be sentenced as a third habitual offender to a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. Siterlet maintained that he only realized the value of the prosecutor’s plea deal when he learned, after trial, that the prosecutor intended to seek sentencing as a fourth habitual offender, which could result in a life sentence.
The prosecutor responded that Siterlet was on notice, from the initial felony information, that he could be sentenced as a fourth habitual offender. During the course of plea negotiations, this status was lowered, but Siterlet rejected all plea offers and proceeded to trial. After trial, but before sentencing, the prosecutor amended the information back to fourth habitual offender status, consistent with Siterlet’s earlier plea offer rejections. The prosecutor argued that the requirements of MCL 769.13 were satisfied because Siterlet was on notice that the prosecutor was seeking enhanced sentencing as a fourth habitual offender within the 21-day period listed in the statute.
The Court of Appeals held, in a published opinion per curiam, that the trial court erred by sentencing Siterlet as a fourth habitual offender because the prosecutor improperly amended the felony information to increase Siterlet’s habitual-offender status long after expiration of the 21-day period in MCL 769.13. The post-trial amendment had the consequence of increasing Siterlet’s potential sentence, and in fact, instead of being subject to a 10-year maximum sentence, Siterlet was sentenced to up to 25 years in prison. As a result, the Court of Appeals held, the error was prejudicial.
Nonetheless, the appeals court determined that Siterlet was not entitled to relief. Siterlet did not object at trial, so the issue was reviewed under the standard for unpreserved error. This required Siterlet to prove that there was an error, the error was “plain,” (clear or obvious), and that the plain error affected his substantial rights. People v Carines, 460 Mich 750, 763 (1999). The Court of Appeals stated that reversal would be warranted “only if the error seriously affected the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings or resulted in the conviction of an actually innocent person.”
That standard was not met here, the Court of Appeals held. First, the trial court’s error was not “plain.” “No binding precedent existed that clearly established that, after the expiration of the 21-day period provided in MCL 769.13(1), an amended felony information that decreased the habitual-offender level charged in an original felony information could not be amended to increase a defendant’s habitual-offender level back to the level charged in the original felony information.” Moreover, held the panel, the error did not seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of the judicial proceedings. Siterlet did not argue that he was innocent, and the factual basis supporting his status as a fourth habitual offender was “beyond dispute.” The Court of Appeals also noted that the prosecutor’s pretrial motions alleged that Siterlet was charged as a fourth habitual offender, and that Siterlet admitted this allegation in at least one response brief. Siterlet “cannot make this admission in the trial court and now argue on appeal that the prosecution abandoned its intent to charge him as a fourth-offense habitual offender.” For these reasons, the Court of Appeals held that Siterlet failed to establish that he was entitled to relief, and it affirmed his sentence.
Siterlet appealed. On September 12, 2013, the Supreme Court ordered oral argument on Siterlet’s application, directing the parties to address “(1) whether the defendant is entitled to any relief on his claim that the trial court lacked authority to sentence him as a fourth habitual offender, MCL 769.12, due to an invalid post-trial amendment of the notice of intent to seek sentence enhancement, MCL 769.13(1), and where the defendant failed to timely object to the amendment or to his sentencing as a fourth habitual offender; and (2) whether the Court of Appeals correctly analyzed the unpreserved error in this case under ‘plain error’ standards.”