In September 2003, Thomas Clifford White was arrested and arraigned in Wayne County for carrying a concealed weapon, being a felon in possession of a firearm, felony firearm, and being a fourth habitual offender. On September 27, 2004, while he was out on bond, White was arrested on firearms charges in Oakland County. When White failed to appear for his December 8, 2004 Wayne County trial, a warrant was issued for his arrest; about 10 days later, White was arrested in Kent County for uttering and publishing. On March 2, 2005, White was sentenced to five years on the Oakland County charges; on March 7, he was sentenced to 20 months to 14 years on the Kent County charges.
Meanwhile, Wayne County did not proceed on the charges from White’s September 2003 arrest until 2010. On February 9, 2011, White pleaded guilty to felony-firearm, third offense. In exchange, the prosecutor agreed to dismiss the charges of carrying a concealed weapon and felon in possession of a firearm, and to withdraw the notice to enhance defendant as a fourth habitual offender. Under the agreement, White would be sentenced to 10 years in prison, but with credit for seven years already served.
But before White entered his guilty plea, White’s counsel expressed concern about White’s right to a speedy trial and complained that the prosecution had violated the 180-day rule, which in certain circumstances is the basis for dismissing a criminal case. MCL 780.131 provides:
(1) Whenever the department of corrections receives notice that there is pending in this state any untried warrant, indictment, information, or complaint setting forth against any inmate of a correctional facility of this state a criminal offense for which a prison sentence might be imposed upon conviction, the inmate shall be brought to trial within 180 days after the department of corrections causes to be delivered to the prosecuting attorney of the county in which the warrant, indictment, information, or complaint is pending written notice of the place of imprisonment of the inmate and a request for final disposition of the warrant, indictment, information, or complaint. The request shall be accompanied by a statement setting forth the term of commitment under which the prisoner is being held, the time already served, the time remaining to be served on the sentence, the amount of good time or disciplinary credits earned, the time of parole eligibility of the prisoner, and any decisions of the parole board relating to the prisoner. The written notice and statement shall be delivered by certified mail.
MCL 780.133 provides that “In the event that, within the time limitation set forth in section 1 of this act, action is not commenced on the matter for which request for disposition was made, no court of this state shall any longer have jurisdiction thereof, nor shall the untried warrant, indictment, information or complaint be of any further force or effect, and the court shall enter an order dismissing the same with prejudice.”
But the trial court judge initially said that the 180-day rule did not apply, because White was unable to show that the Department of Corrections had served written notice by certified mail on the prosecutor. The prosecutor “would have needed to have received a certified letter from the Michigan Department of Corrections … the bottom line is the MDOC is the one that’s suppose [sic] to send a certified letter to the Prosecutor’s Office,” the judge observed.
White placed his unconditional guilty plea on the record and was sentenced – but at a post-conviction hearing on January 4, 2012, White asked the court to set aside his plea, vacate the sentence, and dismiss the case based on the 180-day rule. Based on newly-discovered evidence, White contended that the Department of Corrections had in fact notified the Wayne County prosecutor, in a letter dated April 12, 2005, of the charges pending against White. The letter included White’s date of birth, his social security number, his inmate number, his FBI number, and his SID number. White further argued that the prosecutor responded to the letter on May 17, 2005, stating that there were no pending matters against White in their database, and took no further action in the case. Therefore, White argued, the 180-day rule had been violated.
The prosecutor responded, citing the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in People v Lown, 488 Mich 242 (2011), that White’s unconditional guilty plea waived any claims under the 180-day rule. The prosecutor also argued that the letter, which the prosecutor had recently found, was not sent by certified mail as required by the statute and, therefore, the 180-day rule was never triggered.
Finally, the prosecutor contended that the year of birth in the letter did not match the year of birth of a “Thomas White” in their database or in the court’s record. White countered that his birth year was correct in the letter from the Department of Corrections, and incorrect in the database and the court’s records, and that the letter contained sufficient additional identifying information to enable the prosecutor to locate him.
On January 11, 2012, the trial judge dismissed the charges and vacated White’s guilty plea. The prosecutor had “effectively waived” the certified mail requirement by answering the letter, the judge reasoned. Moreover, the judge said that, if the information had been available at the time of White’s plea, the judge would not have accepted the plea, but would have dismissed the charges based on the 180-day rule.
But in an unpublished per curiam opinion, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge’s ruling and remanded the case, directing the trial court to reinstate White’s guilty-plea conviction and sentence.
Relying on People v Lown, the panel concluded that “White waived any errors based on a violation of the 180-day rule when he rendered his unconditional guilty plea. Therefore, the trial court did not have the discretion to consider his motion.”
The panel added, “Because White waived any errors based on a violation of the 180-day rule with his unconditional guilty plea, we need not address the prosecution’s contention that the trial court abused its discretion when it found that by responding to the invalid letter, the prosecution waived the Department of Corrections’ statutory duty to comply with the certified letter requirement. We note, however, that the notice sent by the Department of Corrections must strictly comply with the relevant statute to trigger the 180-day rule, which includes the requirement that notice be provided to the prosecution by certified mail.”
White appealed, and in an order dated October 25, 2013, the Supreme Court directed the case to be schedule for oral argument “on whether to grant the application or take other action.” The Court directed the parties to address “(1) whether the defendant’s unconditional guilty plea waived any violation of the 180-day rule, MCL 780.131 and MCL 780.133; see People v Lown, 488 Mich 242, 268-270 (2011), where the prosecutor had received (albeit possibly not by certified mail) a written Department of Corrections (DOC) notice of the defendant’s incarceration and a request for final disposition of the pending charges, had responded to the notice stating that there were no pending charges against the defendant, and commenced the criminal action five years after receipt of the notice, and where the defendant and the Wayne Circuit Court were unaware of the notice and the response at the time of the plea proceeding; and (2) whether the defendant’s guilty plea was properly set aside by the trial court for the reason that it was unknowing and involuntary due to the defendant’s and the court’s unawareness of the DOC notice and prosecutorial response.”