Many complainants struggle to take the stand in a trial against their assailant. Sitting through direct exam with a perceived prosecutor ally is often traumatic enough. Facing cross-examination from a (rightfully) zealous defense attorney can be unbearable.
Courtroom support dogs may ease the distress of testifying for certain witnesses. MCL 600.2163a, which governs when a witness may be accompanied by a support person, was recently amended to allow for courtroom support dogs. See 2018 PA 282 (eff. Sept 27, 2018). The amendments were prompted by a 2016 case, People v Johnson, in which two child witnesses were accompanied at trial by a support dog named Mr. Weebers. The children were testifying against their uncle, who was charged with sexually assaulting them. At the time, there was no statutory authority for courtroom support dogs. The court of appeals in Johnson determined that the trial court had inherent authority to allow Mr. Weebers to accompany the children and that the defendant’s due process rights had not been violated.
The amendments to the statute codified aspects of Johnson. But there are limits. Witnesses eligible for courtroom support dogs must be victims who are: children under 16; people over 16 with a developmental disability; or vulnerable adults (defined in MCL 750.145m(u)). MCL 600.2163a(1)(f). Moreover, the statute applies only to certain charged offenses—mainly child abuse, physical and sexual assault, and vulnerable adult abuse. MCL 600.2163a(2).
Because of the statute’s limited scope, one might wonder whether Johnson could be used to allow a broader class of testifying victims the right to courtroom support dogs. Johnson’s holding is rather broad: “We therefore hold that it is within the trial court’s inherent authority to control its courtroom and the proceedings before it to allow a witness to testify while accompanied by a support animal. MCL 768.29; MRE 611(a).” However, in 2018, a different panel of the court of appeals limited Johnson to its facts and held that able-bodied adults were not entitled to courtroom support dogs. See People v Shorter. Shorter has been appealed to the Michigan Supreme Court, so we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
See the Committee’s new instruction on support animals in Michigan Model Criminal Jury Instructions with ICLE Commentary.