Superior Court Informations facilitate the resolution of criminal cases because they enable defendants to plead guilty before Grand Jury presentment. However, there is a key limitation. Under both the State Constitution and the CPL, a defendant may not waive his or her right to a Grand Jury indictment and plead guilty to a SCI if the top charge in the felony complaint is a Class A felony punishable by death or life imprisonment.
This was the issue in People v. Monforte (Ct. App. 9/5/2019), a case which was SSM’ed. The defendant was charged with Murder 2º, a Class A felony that carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Nevertheless, the defendant waived indictment and pleaded guilty to an SCI. The Court of Appeals reversed and reinstated the felony complaint.
This jurisdictional issue survives a guilty plea, reduction to a lesser sentence (in this case, Manslaughter 1º), waiver of appeal, and a sentence within the bounds of the agreed-upon sentence range. Indeed, this claim can be raised for the first time in the Court of Appeals.
People v. Hill (Ct. App. 5/2/2019) is an interesting case that highlights an important point about the DeBour four levels of police-citizen interaction.
This case involved a run-of-the-mill “clean halls” stop in NYCHA housing. The defendant was seen repeatedly entering and exiting a public housing building. The police stopped him and asked for his identification, which he provided. An officer took the ID to the apartment that the defendant was supposedly visiting; the occupant did not know the defendant. The defendant was arrested for trespass. During a search incident to lawful arrest, the police found 42 bags of crack cocaine.
The defendant argued that this was a Level 3 intrusion and required reasonable suspicion, which was lacking. The People argued that it was a Level 1 request for information, which required only an objective, credible reason.
The Court of Appeals agreed that, at the inception, the encounter was justified under Level 1 of DeBour. However:
the record demonstrates that the encounter thereafter rose beyond a level-one request for information, which the People failed to justify as lawful. Consequently, the People have failed to preserve any argument that the encounter in this case was justified under levels two or three of DeBour.
If I am reading the Court’s opinion correctly, the People failed to argue in the alternative before the motion court that, even if this was a Level 3 encounter, it was justified by reasonable suspicion. From a preservation point-of-view, both sides should always argue in the alternative in case a court concludes that a different DeBour level applies than the party originally asserts. (LC)
In People v. Holz (4th Dept. 12/21/2018), the Fourth Department refused to review a suppression ruling of the lower court on a count in an indictment that did not have a final judgment, when the defendant had pleaded guilty to a related count in the same indictment.
At the trial level, the defendant was convicted of Burglary 2°. The indictment was for 2 different burglary incidents, on October 1, 2014 and October 3, 2014, and the defendant pleaded guilty to the October 1 incident, satisfying the both counts of the indictment. At the appellate level, the defendant was seeking suppression of jewelry recovered from a police stop that took place on October 3. The defendant did not plead guilty, nor was he convicted of the October 3 burglary.
The Court’s inability to do anything regarding the defendant’s contention is rooted in the limited nature of appellate jurisdiction. The majority cited a First Department case for the contention that “the judgment of conviction on appeal did not ensue from the denial of the motion to suppress, and the latter is, therefore, not reviewable” pursuant to CPL 710.70 (2). The issue the Court was faced with is not whether the lack of suppression is harmless, but whether the Court has jurisdiction to review the ruling at all.
The majority followed the precedents of its three sister departments in holding that a defendant may not plead guilty to one count of an indictment and then appeal the denial of a suppression motion of another count in which no judgement was rendered but was covered by the plea.
Presiding Justice Whalen dissented, because he found that the majority adopted too strict of an interpretation of CPL 710.70 (2). He noted that the defendants conviction did follow as a consequence or result of the suppression, and therefore, the majority ignored the plain meaning of the statutory language. (JC/LC)
In People v. Grimes (Ct. App. 10/23/2018) (5-2), the Court of Appeals held that, under article I, section 6 of the New York State Constitution, a defendant is not entitled to a writ of error coram nobis to bypass the limitation set by the legislature in CPL 460.30 in which to file a criminal leave application. Judge Wilson authored a dissent, joined by Judge Rivera. Continue reading
I have a piece in tomorrow’s New York Journal arguing that waivers of the right to appeal serve a valid and important purpose in the criminal justice system. Here is an excerpt:
The settlement of a case signifies the end—not the beginning or continuation—of litigation. This is true in both civil litigation and criminal cases. By pleading guilty, the accused is conceding that the People have the requisite proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that a trial is unnecessary. Typically, the relinquishment of trial-based rights is given in exchange for some benefit at sentencing. The parties have reached a mutual agreement, and the case should end.
Appellate litigation is not without costs. The indigent defendant is entitled to a court-appointed lawyer, the People must assign an assistant to write and argue a brief, and the intermediate appellate court must take the time to hear and decide the case. Doing all of this in the context of where the parties have come together to reach an agreement is a waste of resources for all sides and the court.
And so, it is no wonder that district attorneys and some judges insist on appeal waivers as part of guilty pleas. But the choice to accept or reject such a waiver always remains with the defendant, a point the Court of Appeals emphasized in People v. Seaberg, 74 N.Y.2d 1, 8-9 (1989), when it upheld the constitutionality of appeal waivers. People v. Batista, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 7445 (2d Dept. Nov. 7, 2018), reminds plea courts that they must not conflate appeal waivers with the litany of rights that a defendant gives up by pleading guilty.
Thus, it is immaterial whether such waivers are asked for “across-the-board”; an individual defendant is always free to reject it.
At a time when our courts—particularly our intermediate appellate courts—are stretched thin (see Andrew Denney, “NY Appeals Judges Say Trial Courts Should Act to Quell Appeal Waiver Challenges,” N.Y.L.J., Nov. 9, 2018 (noting the delays in the overburdened Second Department)), precious judicial resources should be reserved for those cases where there are meritorious arguments in live cases, not ones where the parties have concluded that litigation should end. If the defendant in a particular case disagrees, he or she should reject any plea offer that contains an appeal waiver, proceed to trial, and, if convicted, litigate an appeal, as is his or her constitutional right.