Earlier today, Paul Tsenesidis posted about People v. Tiger, where the Court of Appeals held that a freestanding actual innocence claim without any further constitutional basis, such as IAC or Brady, could not be used to vacate a judgment that was obtained by guilty plea.
It’s not that the statute in question (CPL 440.10) actually says that. Or that the statute cannot be interpreted to allow an actual innocence challenge. No, the majority chose to adopt that interpretation. … So why did the Court choose to reject the availability of an actual innocence challenge? Strangely–and this is cause for at least as much concern as the Court’s decision itself–the majority relied in large measure on Supreme Court precedents.
I read Tiger differently. I saw it as a statutory interpretation case, not a constitutional one. Most of the majority’s analysis was focused on the statutes, particularly the differences in plain language between 440.10(1)(h), (1)(g), and (1)(g-1), which together showed that the Legislature had a clear purpose in treating judgments obtained by guilty plea versus trial verdict differently. (Still, the majority’s argument would have been stronger if it had expressly come out to say that its decision was on constraint of the statute and that the Legislature was free to provide relief in these types of situations if it so chooses.)
That said, Professor Bonventre’s point is that the statute does provide relief: CPL § 440.10(1)(h), which states that judgments obtained in violation of constitutional rights are subject to vacatur. The argument is that the state Constitution provides for such a basis. Thus, citation to federal cases is inapposite. The New York Court of Appeals has a long tradition of interpreting the New York Constitution as going further than its federal counterpart. Yet the majority does not engage with those cases or principles. (On the other hand, most of those cases are in the search/seizure and right to counsel areas, which do not have bearing on a procedural issue.) If I read Professor Bonventre’s post correctly, he is arguing that the state constitutional issue is properly before the Court—and needed to be addressed—via CPL § 440.10(1)(h).
Still, I come back to the plain language of the statute. CPL § 440.10(1)(h) permits vacatur if the judgment was obtained in violation of a defendant’s state or federal constitutional right. The key word in the statute is “obtained.” In an actual innocence case, the judgment was not “obtained” by some unconstitutional practice. It was obtained by the defendant’s consent to entry of judgment. After all, a person who maintains his or her innocence is allowed to enter into a contractual bargain with the State for a reduced sentence. See North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25 (1970). Again, to Professor Bonventre’s point, Alford is a federal case, but the principle in Alford has been upheld in New York courts as well. See, e.g., People v. Couser, 28 N.Y.3d 368 (2017). So in a roundabout way, perhaps the Tiger majority did engage state constitutional law in its analysis.
And maybe this is to say that there isn’t much daylight between Professor Bonventre’s position and mine after all.
At the end of the day, the ball is now in the Legislature’s court. I wonder what the odds are of the Legislature taking up such a meaty criminal justice issue? (LC)