Looking Down the Road

The Port Huron Times Herald story about Peter Watts’ conviction begins with the following lead:

Toronto author Peter Watts has been found guilty of assaulting, resisting and obstructing a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.

Watts calls this a mistake — saying he was not convicted of assault. Indeed, one of the jurors has written to tell Watts he felt obligated to vote for a conviction on grounds of resisting and obstruction, but says Watts was not guilty of assault.

I wondered if a look at the statute would reconcile both viewpoints. By that I mean — What if the newspaper reporter’s phrasing is legally correct, just less insightful than the juror’s explanation?

The St. Clair county court records and the Michigan code are all available online. Watts was charged under this section of Michigan law:

Section 750.81d: Assaulting, battering, resisting, obstructing, opposing person performing duty; felony; penalty; other violations; consecutive terms; definitions.

(1) Except as provided in subsections (2), (3), and (4), an individual who assaults, batters, wounds, resists, obstructs, opposes, or endangers a person who the individual knows or has reason to know is performing his or her duties is guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment for not more than 2 years or a fine of not more than $2,000.00, or both.

Section 750.81d(1) deals collectively with seven distinctly different actions, five of which are in the title of the statute. So a jury that found someone guilty of any one of these actions might be said to have convicted him of violating the law against “assaulting, battering, resisting, obstructing or opposing” a person performing his or her duties.

But the reporter (or copyeditor) has taken a cafeteria approach, selecting just a few of the listed items. So it doesn’t read like a paraphrase of the statute — it reads like an assertion about the jury’s factual findings that led to Watts’ conviction. And since the jurors were willing to talk out of court the reporter had as much opportunity as the defendant to get the most insightful possible story. I don’t score the lead’s accuracy very highly.

On another topic… For the past two days I have searched for information about how frequently people convicted under this law avoid a prison sentence. I located the Michigan Department of Correction statistical report for 2008 (PDF file): it shows 42% of the people convicted under Section 750.81d just received probation, and another 8% received delayed or suspended sentences (or were dealt with under terms of a youth offender statute).

Everything ultimately comes down to the details in individual cases, of course.

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3 thoughts on “Looking Down the Road

  1. Further agreement with the above.

    Reading paragraph 1, I was burning with curiosity as to what exceptions paragraphs 2-4 could provide in which assaulting, battering, wounding, resisting, obstructing, opposing, or endangering would be OK. Imagine my disappointment, but lack of surprise, to discover that instead, they refer to circumstances in which the fine or punishment would be higher. Oh well.

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