Harmless Error Saves Conviction

In People v. Martin (Ct. App. 3/28/2019), the Court held that even if there was error in allowing the defendant’s statements into evidence under the pedigree exception to Miranda, it was harmless error and would not warrant reversal.

On January 23, 2014, detectives executed a search warrant in a Manhattan apartment. Upon entry, the defendant and four other adult males were found on the premises as well as the defendant’s child. While searching the apartment in accordance with the warrant, the detectives entered a bedroom designated “Bedroom #2” which is where the defendant was found. In plain-view inside Bedroom #2 was a Ziploc bag containing over 500 milligrams of crack/cocaine, smaller green empty Ziplocs; and a digital scale. In that same bedroom, detectives also found mail addressed to defendant at that address. Elsewhere in the apartment (in a hallway closet and in “Bedroom #3”), the detectives found a Ziploc bag containing a substance which included crack-cocaine and weighed more than one-eighth of an ounce, a second digital scale, and additional empty Ziplocs. While the defendant and the other apartment occupants were detained, a detective took down each of their pedigree information without first giving them  Miranda warnings.

Defendant was subsequently indicted on multiple drug charges stemming from the seized drugs in Bedroom #2 as well as the drugs found in the hallway closet. Prior to trial the prosecution informed the defendant and the Court that it sought to elicit at trial the defendant’s statements that he lived at that apartment. The Defendant objected on the grounds that statement notice pursuant to CPL § 710.30 were never served on these statements within 15 days of the defendant’s arraignment. In a written decision, the trial court found that these statements fell within the pedigree exception to the Miranda requirement and therefore no statement notice was necessary under CPL § 710.30. The statements were used against the defendant at trial and he was convicted on all counts relating to the drugs and paraphernalia found in Bedroom #2 but the jury was hung as to the two counts relating to the drugs and paraphernalia found in the hallway closet.

On appeal, the defendant contested the validity of his conviction. In their response briefs, the People argued that these statements were properly admitted as pedigree information questions under People v. Rodney, 85 N.Y.2d 289 (1995). It was the People’s position that these questions fell into the classification of pedigree questions as “non-investigative inquiries” relating to “administrative concerns.” Thus, an arrestee’s response to a pedigree question is not subject to suppression, and the People may offer such a response into evidence even without giving statement notice pursuant to CPL § 710.30.

The Court of Appeals expressly held it was not deciding this issue.  Instead, it focused its analysis on harmless error.  First, the Court held that the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming since he was found inside Bedroom #2 where there were drugs and paraphernalia found in plain view. Additionally, the Court held  that the defendant would not be entitled to relief even if the statements had been improperly admitted by the trial court. The Court pointed to the fact that the jury could not reach a verdict on the two counts relating to the drugs found in the apartment hallway closet. The Court reasoned that the jury could not have put too much stock into the admitted statements that the defendant lived there because it could not reach a decision as to whether he had constructive possession of the drugs in the hallway closet. In other words, if the jury had believed the pedigree admission and put great weight on it, it would have convicted on all of the counts.  For these reasons, the defendant’s convictions were affirmed.  (MK/LC)

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