Pleading a gravity knife charge

The Court of Appeals recently held that an unsupported conclusory
statement in an accusatory instrument that an object is a per se weapon under Penal
Law Article 265 is a violation of the reasonable clause requirement.  This amounts to a jurisdictional defect.

In People v. Dreyden (Ct. App. 6/15/2010) (Pigott, J.) (6-1),
the defendant pleaded guilty to CPW 4° after a knife was found in his possession.  The plea was in exchange for a sentence of
time served.  The defendant then appealed
his conviction on the ground that the accusatory instrument was
jurisdictionally defective, because it did not include any non-conclusory
allegations sufficient to establish the basis of the arresting officer’s belief
that the knife recovered from the defendant was a gravity knife.  The
Appellate Term affirmed the judgment of conviction, holding that an accusatory
instrument can satisfy jurisdictional requirements without containing the statutory
criteria for a gravity knife.

The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that an accusatory
instrument is jurisdictionally defective if it fails to supply the defendant
with sufficient notice of the charged crime to satisfy the demands of due
process and double jeopardy.  An
arresting officer can satisfy this test by briefly explaining how he or she
formed the belief that the object observed met the statutory requirements.  A gravity knife has two requirements: (1) a blade that "is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force;" and (2) the blade, "when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device."  Here, the accusatory instrument merely stated, in conclusory fashion, that the item was a gravity knife.

In dissent, Judge Smith agreed that the accusatory
instrument was defective, but argued that the defect was not jurisdictional.  He noted that no element of the crime with
which the defendant was charged was omitted from the accusatory instrument and asserted
that the court failed to demonstrate how the defendant was deprived of fair
notice or put at risk of double jeopardy by the defect.  Additionally, the dissent argued that the defendant’s
failure to raise the jurisdictional challenge at the onset of his trial did not
rise to the level of fundamental procedural irregularities that permit raising
unpreserved issues at appeal.  Under People v. Agramonte, 87 N.Y.2d 765, 770 (1996),
only errors that go to the essential validity of the proceedings conducted may
be raised on appeal without being preserved below.  Finally, the dissent argued that calling this
type of defect “jurisdictional” served no useful purpose and incorrectly increased
the number of situations where trivial errors make the process of prosecuting
and punishing offenders more difficult. 

I wonder if this case represents a backtrack from Kalin.  Kalin seemed to adopt a more flexible standard for judging facial sufficiency by focusing on the purposes of accusatory instruments (notice to the accused, guarding against double jeopardy violations, and enabling the defendant to prepare for trial).  This case seems to say that, with some crimes, the deponent must provide additional evidence to support the various elements of a crime. (MM/LC)

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