The Importance of Jury Note Readings, as Shown by a Pro Se Defendant

In People v. Timmons (4th Dept. 10/5/18), the Fourth Department allowed for a reconstruction regarding whether the trial court did not provide adequate notice to defense counsel when it did not read out a jury note verbatim.

The defendant in this case was tried and convicted by a jury of Murder 2º.  He appealed to the Fourth Department, and it affirmed the conviction. However, the defendant filed a writ of error coram nobis, because he contended his appellate counsel failed to raise an issue on appeal that may have merit: a violation of CPL § 310.30 in regard to a note from the jury in its deliberations.

CPL 310.30 requires the jury to return to the courtroom after notice to both the People and counsel for the defendant and give instruction as the court deems proper. When there is a substantive note from the jury, the court must provide counsel with meaningful notice of the content of the note, and the court must provide a meaningful response to the jury. This means actual, specific content of the jurors’ request must be disclosed. The Court of Appeals has held that a trial court’s failure to read a jury’s note verbatim deprives counsel of the opportunity to analyze accurately the jury’s deliberations and frame intelligent suggestions for the court’s response.

The defendant here contended that the trial court failed to read the note from the jury verbatim, and the transcript shows that instead in the reading both in front of and outside the presence of the jury, omitted to read the jury’s request to have a read back of the medical examiner’s testimony, and to have that testimony read first.

The People contended that it was the transcript that was in fact incorrect, and that the trial judge did read verbatim the jury note. They relied upon an affidavit from the court reporter that was submitted in response to the defendant’s writ. The affidavit stated that a stenographic error may have resulted in a transcript that did not accurately reflect whether the court read the entire content of the note verbatim in open court prior to responding to the jury.

The Fourth Department held that the alleged error in the transcript of the court’s on the record reading of the note was subject to a reconstruction hearing because the trial judge is the final arbiter of the record certified to the appellate courts. Therefore, the case was reversed and remitted to the County Court for the reconstruction hearing. (JC)

 

Request to Proceed Pro Se Untimely If Made After Start of Jury Selection

When must a defendant invoke his or her right to proceed pro se in order for the request to be considered “timely”? In People v. Crespo (Ct. App. 10/16/2018) (4-3), the Court of Appeals held that a request to proceed pro se is timely if made “before the commencement of trial,” defined as before the start of jury selection. After the start of jury selection, the right to proceed pro se is “severely constricted,” but the trial court may grant such an application in its discretion. Judge Rivera authored a lengthy dissent, joined by Judges Fahey and Wilson. Continue reading

Rare AD2 Reversal for Factual Insufficiency

Under its factual review power, the Appellate Division sits as a “thirteenth juror” to determine whether the factfinder—the jury or, in a bench trial, the judge—was justified in finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  This assessment does not permit the court to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, as is required in a legal sufficiency review.  Since the Court of Appeals can only review questions of law, “weight of the evidence” decisions cannot be reviewed by that higher court.

Recently, the Second Department reversed a conviction on weight of the evidence grounds—a rare move.  In People v. Herskovic (App. Div. 2d Dept. 10/10/2018), the court reversed the defendant’s conviction for Gang Assault 2º and related charges, which stemmed from a 2013 attack upon the victim by a group of 20 Hasidic Jewish men in Brooklyn. The victim was not able to identify the defendant as one of the attackers.  The victim and eyewitnesses also gave conflicting accounts of the attack.

The People relied principally on DNA recovered from the defendant’s sneaker, which one of the attackers had taken off of him and thrown on a roof.   However, the DNA sample was small (97.9 picograms, short of the 100.0 picograms needed for a traditional DNA analysis) and was a mixture of two or more individuals’ DNA.   A criminologist testified to a procedure that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had developed to analyze such small and mixed samples to determine a “likelihood ratio.”  However, even with these “tweaked” protocols, the court found the DNA evidence lacking:

The analysis also found that it was 133 times more likely that the DNA sample originated from the defendant and the complainant than from the complainant and an unknown unrelated person. The FST analysis of the DNA was based upon a Caucasian population, and failed to take into account the genetic history of the defendant, a member of the Hasidic population. Moreover, the likelihood ratio result was only 133, a relatively insubstantial number.

Based on the weak testimony and “less than convincing” DNA analysis, the court reversed on the facts.  As a result, the defendant may not be retried.  For more on this case, see this article from the New York Law Journal (subscription required).

Sufficiency of Accusatory Instrument Charging Patronizing a Prostitute 3º

A few days ago, the Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Term’s decision dismissing an accusatory instrument as jurisdictionally defective.  At issue was whether the term “manual stimulation” in the context of Patronizing a Prostitute 3º was sufficient.

At the Appellate Term, the defendant argued, “the [term] ‘manual stimulation’ he sought could refer to a ‘foot rub, therapeutic massage, chiropractic adjustment, personal training – even an energetic match of thumb wrestling’.”

I think I’ll let the Court of Appeals’ opinion on this issue speak for itself:

The factual allegations that defendant requested “manual stimulation” from a woman on a street corner, for a specific sum of money, at 2:25 a.m., supplied “defendant with sufficient notice of the charged crime to satisfy the demands of due process and double jeopardy” (People v Dreyden, 15 NY3d 100, 103 [2010]). Defendant’s argument that “manual stimulation” could be indicative of nonsexual conduct ignores the inferences of sexual activity to be drawn from the factual context in which the statement was alleged to have been made—a late night solicitation of a physical personal service from an individual on a public street, in exchange for a sum of money. Any assertion that defendant was referring to a nonsexual activity “was a matter to be raised as an evidentiary defense not by insistence that this information was jurisdictionally defective” (see Casey, 95 NY2d at 360). The fact that the instrument used a clinical phrase for the sexual activity alleged does not render the instrument jurisdictionally defective.

(LC).

Sufficiently Pleading an Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle Charge

For a misdemeanor complaint to be facially sufficient, the accusatory instrument must provide facts that would establish each element of the crimes being charged. In People v. Bajas (App. Term 2d Dept. 8/31/2018), the Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction,  holding that the allegations in the accusatory instrument sufficiently alleged facts that established the “control or use of [a] vehicle” element of Penal Law § 165.05(1). The case drew a dissent from Judge Weston.

The defendant was arrested after an officer observed the defendant, at 4:24 AM, pull the handle of a 2006 Ford Suburban, enter the vehicle, and rummage through the glove compartment and center console of the Ford Suburban. The defendant was arrested and charged with Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3°, Attempted Petit Larceny, and Resisting Arrest. During his second court appearance, the defendant pleaded guilty to Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3° with the understanding that if he successfully completed a drug treatment program, the case would be dismissed. If he was unsuccessful in treatment, the defendant would be sentenced to one year of incarceration to run concurrently with a sentence on a prior, unrelated, felony charge. The defendant did not complete the drug treatment program and was sentenced to imprisonment.

On appeal, defendant contends that his conviction should be reversed because the factual part of the accusatory instrument, which merely alleged that he had entered a vehicle and rummaged through the glove compartment and the center console, did not satisfy the reasonable cause requirement for a misdemeanor complaint charging Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the Third degree. A person is guilty of Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3° when:

[k]nowing that he does not have the consent of the owner, he takes, operates, exercises control over, rides in or otherwise uses a vehicle. A person who engages in any such conduct without the consent of the owner is presumed to know that he does not have such consent.

The broad language of the statute has been interpreted to apply to a person who “enters an automobile without permission and takes actions that interfere with or are detrimental to the owner’s possession or use of the vehicle.” Entry into a vehicle alone is not enough; there must be some degree of control or use. The court relied on this reasoning for holding that the defendant’s rummaging through the car and center console satisfied the statute.

Judge Weston, on the other hand, would have reversed the judgment, vacated the guilty plea, and dismissed the accusatory instrument. In her dissent, Judge Weston pointed to the majority’s reliance on the Court of Appeals decision in People v. Franov. Franov dealt with an entry into a vehicle where the defendant vandalized and then removed certain automotive parts from the dashboard. Judge Weston believed that merely rummaging through a vehicle does not constitute vandalism, and since there was no allegation in the accusatory instrument of any further action on the part of defendant, in addition to the entry, the statute was not satisfied. Instead, Judge Weston would have the Court follow the same rationale as a similar previously decided case, People v. Gavrilov. This case held that the defendant’s entry into a vehicle and stealing a wallet from inside was not enough to constitute “use or control” of the vehicle for the purposes of the statute. Here, there was not even property taken (MK/LC.