Refusal to permit summations results in overturned verdict

In a bench trial, the court may not prohibit summations if the judgment will result in jail time.  Doing so is a violation of the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel.  In People v. Harris (Ct. App. 6/26/2018) (7-0), the defendant was tried for a Class B misdemeanor with the court as trier of fact.  However, the judge announced at the close of the evidence that it would exercise its “prerogative” not to hear summations.  The court immediately rendered a verdict finding the defendant guilty of the charge and sentencing him to 90 days in jail.

First, the Court of Appeals held that the claim was reviewable on appeal even though no objection was taken to the court’s ruling.  The manner in which the trial judge proceeded “deprived defense counsel of a practical ability to timely and meaningfully object to the court’s ruling of law.”  Thus, the Appellate Term erred in holding that the claim was unpreserved.

On the merits, the Court held that the failure to permit summations deprived the defendant of his Sixth Amendment right to counsel, since his attorney was not able to be heard.  New York’s former CPL § 320.20(3)(c), which gave trial courts the discretion not hear summations on nonjury indictments, was ruled unconstitutional in Herring v. New York, 422 U.S. 853 (1975).

The Court’s ruling in Harris came with two important caveats:

Our analysis is limited to the facts in this case and we do not address the constitutionality of the statute as applied to other nonjury trials that may not involve a deprivation of liberty. Similarly, defendant never argued that the denial of an opportunity to deliver summations violated his statutory right to counsel (see CPL 170.10).

Overall, Harris is a straightforward case with clear implications for future cases. (LC)

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