Category Archives: Case Summaries

People Successfully Defend Police Contact Under Level One of DeBour; Court Suppresses Under Higher Level

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)

Who Was the First Initial Deadly Aggressor?

When it occurred, the killing of Vonde Cabbagestalk drew a great deal of media attention, since the shooter was an off-duty New York City corrections officer. At issue in the case on appeal was whether the defendant was entitled to a justification charge. The trial court said no; the three-judge majority of the Appellate Division said yes. The Court of Appeals agreed today with the trial court, finding that the evidence showed that the defendant was the first initial deadly aggressor and, thus, not entitled to a justification charge. The case is People v. Brown (Ct. App. 5/7/2019) (Wilson, J.) (7-0).

One of the things I appreciate about this case is how methodical Judge Wilson undertakes his justification analysis. Justification is a tricky topic because it involves a great deal of “back and forth,” examining the conduct of the shooter and the deceased.

In Brown, it was undisputed that the defendant shot and killed the victim in the lobby of the defendant’s building after an argument. There were several witnesses, but only one saw the shooting. He saw the victim swing at the defendant but apparently miss. The defendant was holding a gun. The victim then “swiped” at the gun and said, “[I]f you going to pull a gun out, you got to use it.” The defendant did just that. He was then convicted of Manslaughter 1º after the jury acquitted on Murder 2º.

Judge Wilson’s analysis proceeded in a logical manner:

  • This was the use of deadly physical force. Therefore, to be entitled to a jury instruction on justification, there must be a reasonable view of the evidence that the defendant was confronted with deadly physical force and must not be the first initial aggressor of that force.
  • A person can be the first initial aggressor as to physical force but another can be the initial aggressor as to the deadly physical force. That is what happened here.
  • “To determine who the ‘initial aggressor’ is, then, both the sequence of the attacks (or imminently threatened attacks) and the nature of those attacks matter: which attacks were ‘physical force’ and which attacks were ‘deadly physical force?'”
  • The victim was unarmed.
  • The victim “swiped” at the gun only after the defendant first produced the firearm.
  • The victim and others made clear that it seemed that the defendant was going to use the gun.
  • Because the defendant drew the gun first and was the initial deadly aggressor, he was not entitled to the justification defense unless he retreated or the victim was the initial deadly aggressor.
  • There was no withdrawal (or communication of it, etc.).
  • The “swipe” at the gun did not constitute use or threat of deadly physical force and, in any event, occurred after the defendant first pulled out the gun. This left the defendant as the first initial deadly force aggressor.

(LC)

Conviction Overturned Where Trial Court Negotiated a Cooperation Agreement with a Co-Defendant

In New York, unlike other states and the federal system, trial judges and defendants may bypass the People and enter into plea negotiations directly. This is not uncommon. However, in People v. Towns (Ct. App. 5/7/2019), the Court of Appeals held that the trial court “abandoned the role of a neutral arbiter and assumed the function of an interested party” when it entered into a cooperation agreement with a co-defendant, which required that individual to testify against Towns in exchange for a more favorable sentence. The Court’s decision was unanimous, although Judge Rivera would have gone a step further and held that the trial judge showed actual bias.

The case was a simple, straightforward robbery, in which the issue was the identity of the perpetrators. The co-defendant implicated the defendant. His plea agreement with the judge called for a possible punishment of between 9 and 15 years; the judge, however, promised a sentence on the low end of the range if the co-defendant cooperated in the defendant’s case. At the defendant’s trial, the prosecution elicited that the co-defendant had not entered into a cooperation agreement with the district attorney’s office. The judge instructed the jury that the agreement was between the co-defendant and the court.

The Appellate Division criticized the trial court but upheld the conviction, finding that the court’s conduct did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, analogizing to cases where judges made caustic remarks, called its own witnesses at trial, aggressively cross-examined witnesses, or acted as an appellate court in its own case. The focus, for the Court of Appeals, was the lack of neutrality that the judge showed. The Court was particularly troubled by the trial court’s statements tying its understanding of truthful testimony with the co-defendant’s prior statement:

Indeed, whatever its subjective intentions, the trial court effectively procured a witness in support of the prosecution by inducing the codefendant to testify concerning statements the codefendant made to police—which identified defendant as one of the robbers—in exchange for the promise of a more lenient sentence. Significantly, by tying its assessment of the truthfulness of the codefendant’s testimony to that individual’s prior statements to police, the trial court essentially directed the codefendant on how the codefendant must testify in order to receive the benefit of the bargain.

The case was remitted for trial before a different judge. (LC)

Defendant’s Refusal to Testify in Separate Prosecution Violated Cooperation Agreement, Even Though Agreement Did Not Expressly Require Such Testimony

In People v. Rodriguez (Ct. App. 4/2/19) (6-1), a majority of the Court of Appeals found that the defendant violated the terms of his cooperation agreement when he refused to testify in a separate, unrelated prosecution. Therefore, the Court affirmed the Appellate Division, Third Department’s decision and held that the County Court did not abuse its discretion by denying defendant’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea based on his claimed subjective misinterpretation of the agreement. Continue reading

COA Orders a 440 Hearing – But Where is the Factual Dispute?

The Court of Appeals took the rare step of ordering a hearing on a defendant’s CPL § 440.10 motion. In People v. Brown (Ct. App. 5/2/2019) (6-1), the defendant and a co-defendant were found guilty of Depraved Indifference Murder and related charges. The defendant’s lawyer was hired to represent a third individual, who was present at the scene, on unrelated charges. The trial court was informed of the potential conflict of interest and conducted a Gomberg inquiry after appointing conflict counsel. The defendant waived any possible conflict of interest. The case proceeded to trial with the original attorney representing the defendant.

The defendant later apparently had a change of mind and brought a CPL § 440.10 motion, arguing he was deprived of effective assistance of counsel because his lawyer had a conflict of interest. Specifically, the defendant alleged that the third individual had actually paid the lawyer to represent the defendant. He stated that the conflict counsel only explained to him that his attorney would be prohibited from cross-examining the individual if he was called as a witness; the implications of the third individual paying for the attorney’s fees were not explained to him. However, the defendant had told the trial during the Gomberg inquiry that he or his family had hired the lawyer. There was no mention of the third individual doing so. The defendant did not provide an affidavit from his trial lawyer in connection with his 440 motion.

The Court of Appeals noted that there are two types of conflicts of interest: actual or potential, but that even some actual conflicts can be waived. Without identifying the factual issue in dispute, the Court said that the motion court erred in not holding a hearing:

On this record, we conclude that Supreme Court abused its discretion in determining that a hearing was not warranted to address the allegations contained in defendant’s CPL 440.10 motion regarding Chabrowe’s representation of defendant and whether any conflict of interest existed warranting reversal. 

Judge Stein, in dissent, pushed back. She noted that a motion court, in the first instance, must decide whether a 440 motion can be decided without a factual hearing. Quoting from People v. Chu-Joi, Judge Stein wrote, “[T]he court is not required to credit defendant’s evidence of fraud — particularly, his own, utterly unexplained, fraud on the trial court — that is self-serving and uncorroborated because the court does not have to accept every sworn allegation as true” (cleaned up). Here, the fraud upon the trial court was the defendant’s own statement during the Gomberg inquiry that he or his family had hired the attorney; there was no mention of the third individual doing so.

Ultimately, I am as perplexed as Judge Stein as to what factual issue the motion court is to decide. The defendant told the trial court that his lawyer was paid by him or his family and, in any event, he expressly waived any conflict of interest after consulting with conflict counsel. Where is the issue?

Underlying the majority’s decision may be justified annoyance in how the motion court handled the defendant’s CPL § 440.10 motion in the first instance. Quoting from the majority: “Supreme Court made no findings of fact or conclusions of law and denied the motion in a one sentence order, stating: ‘[d]efendant’s motion pursuant to CPL 440.10 is denied without a hearing for the reasons set forth at great length in the People’s opposing [papers].'” Appellate courts look with disfavor on trial court decisions that merely adopt one party’s briefs without further analysis. So perhaps what the Court of Appeals was looking for was some independent analysis and explanation of why the People’s position was correct. (LC)