Category Archives: Case Summaries

“Dangerous Contraband”: What is it?

In People v. Flagg (4th Dept. 11/16/2018), the Fourth Department considered a defendant’s appeal despite the lack of preservation and expounded upon what constitutes “dangerous contraband” in a prison.

At the lower court, the defendant was convicted  by a jury of Promoting Prison Contraband 1° and CPCS 7°. These convictions arose after correction officers obtained a disposable glove containing four Tramadol pills from the defendant’s possession, while he was incarcerated at a local jail.

For the crime of Promoting Prison Contraband 1º, the People were required to prove that the defendant was (1) confined in a detention facility, and (2) knowingly and unlawfully made, obtained, or possessed any “dangerous contraband.” Dangerous contraband is defined by the Penal Law as “contraband which is capable of such use as may endanger the safety or security of a detention facility or any person therein.” The test that the Court of Appeals developed in People v. Finley to determine whether a substance is dangerous is “whether its particular characteristics are such that there is a substantial probability that the item will be used in a manner that is likely to cause death or other serious injury, to facilitate an escape, or to bring about other major threats to a detention facility’s institutional safety or security.”

On appeal, the defendant contended that there was legally insufficient evidence to establish that the Tramadol pills were “dangerous.” Although defense counsel moved for a dismissal, the Court noted that this was not enough to preserve the issue for review, but considered the defendant’s appeal in the interest of justice.

The People presented testimony from corrections officers that the pills were dangerous because inmates will fight over the drugs and inmates will also get high and try to fight the staff, or attack other inmates. Additionally, a Sheriff’s detective testified that if not prescribed to the person who was taking the pills, it could cause the person who ingested the pill’s death.

The Court found that this testimony was only discussing broad penological concerns and was speculative and conclusory. The evidence did not establish a substantial probability of a major threat to the facility, or death or serious injury. Specifically, the Court found that there was no specific evidence regarding the dosage of Tramadol or what it would do if ingested by an individual. Thus, the Court found that the People did not establish the “dangerousness” of the pills possessed by the defendant and therefore, the convicted should be reduced to Promoting Prison Contraband 2°.

Further, the Court noted that drugs in it of themselves are not inherently dangerous and the specific use and effects are necessary to show whether or not a drug is dangerous. The Court stated the determination of what types and quantities of drugs are considered dangerous is best left to the legislature. (JC)

Old Enough to Know Better, But Not Enough to Warrant a 35-Year Sentence

The Fourth Department in People v. Jones (4th Dept. 11/9/2018) considered whether it should, in its discretion, override the lower court’s decision on two matters: (1) whether the defendant should have been sentenced as a youth offender or as an adult, and (2) whether the sentence imposed was too harsh and excessive. The Court ultimately used its authority to amend the lower court’s decision on the second count in the “interest of justice.”

The defendant was convicted of Assault 1º and two counts of CPW 2º; he committed the crimes when he was 18 years old. Although CPL 720.10(3) provides that “a youth who has been convicted of an armed felony offense . . . is an eligible youth if the court determines that one or more of the following factors exist: (i) mitigating circumstances that bear directly upon the manner in which the crime was committed; or (ii) where the defendant was not the sole participant in the crime, the defendant’s participation was relatively minor although not so minor as to constitute a defense to the prosecution.” Therefore, the only relevant mitigating factors related to a CPL 720.10(3), or “eligible youth,” inquiry revolve around the circumstances of the crime itself, such as “a lack of injury to others or evidence that the defendant did not display a weapon during the crime.” Here, the Fourth Department affirmed the lower court’s decision in trying the defendant as an adult rather than an eligible youth because he carried a loaded gun on several occasions and shot a gang member.

Although the Court decided that trying the defendant as an adult was just, it determined that the 35-year sentence imposed on the defendant was too harsh. As a matter of discretion in the interest of justice, the Fourth Department modified the defendant’s sentence to run for an aggregate term of 25 years. The Court contemplated multiple factors in deciding to reduce the sentence; the defendant’s lack of a criminal record, the fact that the victim was attempting to commit an armed robbery of the defendant’s gang members, and the fact that the People offered a plea constituting a 20-year sentence all contributed to the Court’s decision to impose a more lax sentence.

Two judges dissented to the second part of the majority’s opinion; they did not believe the Court should amend the sentence in any way. This decision was not necessary in the “interest of justice.” Although the dissent noted the defendant’s low intellect and rough childhood, it was of paramount significance that the defendant was a dangerous individual who was known to carry a loaded gun. Thus, he should be “locked up for a long time.”

State and Local Law Enforcement Prohibited from Making Civil Immigration Arrests

In People ex rel. Wells o/b/o Susai Francis v. DeMarco (2d Dept. 11/14/2018), the Second Department unanimously held that New York state and local law enforcement officers are not authorized under New York law to make arrests for civil immigration violations.

The factual background is somewhat complicated. The petitioner, Susai Francis, is an Indian citizen. He entered the United States via New York City in 1996 on a B2 visitor visa, which allowed him to remain in the United States for a period not to exceed six months. Francis did not leave the United States when the visa expired. Instead, he has remained on Long Island for more than two decades and has two children, one of whom is a citizen of the United States. On March 25, 2015, Francis was served with a notice to appear in Immigration Court, and he is currently the subject of removal proceedings.

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Suazo: Where We Go From Here

Yesterday, the New York Court of Appeals held that, as a matter of federal constitutional law, a noncitizen has a right to a jury trial for a petty offense if he or she can show that the charged crime may result in deportation. The majority’s reasoning boils down to the following. A person has a right to a jury trial when he or she is facing a “serious crime,” which has mostly been measured by the potential length of the sentence; “seriousness” should also consider other types of consequences; and deportation or removal is one such type of serious consequence, thus requiring a jury trial on demand. In this post, I’ll analyze the Court’s decision and predict where we’re headed in this area.

Background

First, some background about the jury trial right under the U.S. Constitution and New York law.  Under the Sixth Amendment, there is a right to a jury trial for “serious” offenses but not for “petty” ones.  One bright-line rule in this regard is that if the potential punishment is six months or greater, the offense is “serious.”  However, the Supreme Court has also clarified that offenses that carry a maximum punishment of less than six months may still be “serious” (and carry a right to a jury trial) if other punishment render it so.  

In New York, CPL § 340.40 provides greater protections to defendants than under the Sixth Amendment.  In counties other than the five boroughs of New York City, there is a jury trial right for all misdemeanors, regardless of potential punishment.  However, under § 340.40(2), prosecutions in New York City of misdemeanors carrying potential punishments of six months or less—such as the one of Mr. Suazo—are tried to a judge only.  (One note: Class A misdemeanors carry a maximum punishment of one year in jail, and Class B misdemeanors carry a maximum punishment of three months in jail.  However, it is incorrect to read CPL § 340.40(2)’s bench trial trial rule as being limited to Class B misdemeanors only.  There are a handful of unclassified misdemeanors sprinkled throughout the law that carry punishments of between three and six months [see Penal Law § 55.10].) 

Suazo: The Facts

Saylor Suazo was charged with a number of domestic violence-related misdemeanors.  He was later accused of violating an order of protection that grew out of the earlier prosecution. The offenses occurred in The Bronx. Immediately before trial, the People moved to reduce the Class A misdemeanor charges to attempts, rendering them Class B charges, punishable by a maximum of three months in jail.  Under New York law, the case proceeded to trial without a jury. 

Suazo: The Holding

In addressing whether deportation or removal is an “additional penalty beyond incarceration” that elevates otherwise “petty” misdemeanors to “serious” offenses, the Court of Appeals concluded, “There can be no serious dispute that, if deemed a penalty for Sixth Amendment purposes, deportation or removal is a penalty of the utmost severity.”

The Court based this conclusion on the fact that deportation proceedings often involve pre-adjudication detention, which then leads to “lifelong banishment or exile” from the United States, a country that a person may consider home, and that deportation is often triggered under federal law by some state criminal conviction.  The Court rejected the People’s arguments that deportation is a civil, collateral consequence, not a penalty.  The Court relied principally on the Supreme Court’s decision in Padilla v. Kentucky, which held that defense attorneys must advise noncitizen defendants of the immigration consequences of guilty pleas.  And given the large increase in immigration enforcement proceedings since 1996, there is a ready “connection” between state criminal convictions and deportation.  The majority also noted that the Supreme Court has never held that collateral consequences cannot be considered as a factor in the Sixth Amendment jury trial right analysis. 

Returning to the facts, the Court held that at least one of the charges—Criminal Obstruction of Breathing or Blood Circulation (Penal Law § 121.11)—qualified as a deportable offense and, therefore, the defendant was entitled to a jury trial.

Suazo: The Dissents

There were two dissents.  Judge Garcia wrote that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right analysis should focus solely on the penalties imposed by the New York legislature for the specific offense at issue.  He called upon the Supreme Court to weigh in to settle the issue.  Judge Wilson dissented on the grounds that deportation has never been considered to be a criminal penalty.  Indeed, deportation proceedings themselves do not come with the right to a jury trial.  They are, instead, administrative proceedings.  He also noted that “the problems underlying this issue would vanish” if the Legislature were to amend CPL § 340.40(2) to remove the New York City exception.

Analysis

The dissents have the better argument here.  Courts have historically looked to the punishments imposed by the state legislature to determine if an offense is petty or serious.  Certainly one can imagine a situation where the jail penalty is low but some additional penalty (lifelong probation?) might elevate an offense to seriousness.  But the focus is always on the definition from the Legislature that applies to all persons accused of the crime.  The majority’s decision sets up a situation where certain defendants have greater constitutional rights than others who are charged with the same crime, all based on consequences imposed by another sovereign, the federal government.  

My fundamental disagreement with the Court is the following sentence: “There can be no serious dispute that, if deemed a penalty for Sixth Amendment purposes, deportation or removal is a penalty of the utmost severity.”  I do dispute the Court’s use of the term “penalty.”  Immigration proceedings are civil, not criminal, and what they impose—deportation or removal—is not a “penalty.”  If it were, there would be a right to a jury trial in deportation proceedings, which would have to be held before Article III judges, not employees of the Justice Department, a point made by Judge Wilson.

There are also some significant issues that will need to be sorted out in the future, such as the Equal Protection argument I raise below. 

Implications

  • This decision only impacts prosecutions in New York City.  Under CPL § 340.40, trials of all misdemeanors outside of the five boroughs must occur with a jury, unless waived by the defendant.
  • In addition, this decision only impacts those misdemeanors carrying the possibility of deportation.  However, federal immigration law is less than clear in some respects. However, the majority notes, “it is the defendant’s burden to overcome the presumption that the crime charged is petty and establish a Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial … . In the event the parties disagree as to the potential immigration consequences of a conviction, we are confident that our courts are competent to resolve such questions as they are presented.”
  • This decision may very well be bad news for many noncitizen defendants.  Now, after this decision, prosecutors will no longer have an incentive to amend accusatory instruments to drop the top charges to Class B misdemeanors. Noncitizens may now find themselves facing the original, Class A misdemeanors.  If convicted, they could end up serving more time in jail.  
  • Although I have no inside information, I suspect that the Bronx District Attorney will seek certiorari from the Supreme Court of the United States.  It would not surprise me if the petition was granted, since this case raises an interesting issue of federal law, and at least one other high court (the D.C. Court of Appeals) has reached the same holding as the New York Court of Appeals.  On the other hand, these decisions could be considered outliers, and the Court may very well chose not to take up the case and instead allow the issue to be litigated in other courts.  The Supreme Court is not a court for the correction of error, after all.
  • The defendant in this case only preserved a claim under the Sixth Amendment.  In the event the U.S. Supreme Court reverses, I fully expect that this issue will again be litigated under the New York Constitution, which is far more generous on civil liberties issues than its federal counterpart. 
  • I wonder if we should now expect citizen-defendants to bring Equal Protection Clause challenges to CPL § 340.40(2)’s New York City carve-out, arguing that Suazo impermissibly provides greater rights to noncitizens such that Suazo should simply be extended to all defendants.  Maybe there’s even a Privileges and Immunities Clause argument to be made?  (I have not done enough research in either doctrine to be able to opine one way or another — I just raise this as a potential issue for future litigation.)  In the text accompanying footnote 8, the Court leaves for another day “whether a citizen would likewise be entitled to a jury trial when charged with an otherwise deportable offense.”
  • The usual caveats about landmark decisions apply.  First, it applies only to cases in the direct appeal pipeline. Second, defendants who wish to take advantage of this ruling on appeal must have preserved the claim in the lower court; otherwise, they will have to rely on the Appellate Division’s interest-of-justice authority, and they will be out of luck when they get to the Court of Appeals, which can only hear questions of law (although query whether this is a mode of proceedings error). Third, the courts will have to wrestle with whether to make Suozo retroactive.  And, finally, this decision is going to be of little help to petitioners in federal habeas actions, given AEDPA deference.

Officer’s Intent Irrelevant When Determining Whether Defendant Was Subject to Custodial Interrogation

In People v. Thomas (3d Dept. 11/9/2018), the Third Department held that the defendant was not subjected to custodial interrogation, even though a police officer testified that he would not have allowed the defendant to leave after he had entered the defendant’s residence.

The police responded to the defendant’s residence following a 911 call reporting a shooting. Defendant was initially asked to back up into the kitchen. The police explained that they simply wanted to be able to enter the residence safely and check the premises. A police officer then interviewed the defendant, his girlfriend, and two roommates together in the kitchen of the residence. The defendant was never handcuffed or otherwise restrained, and the defendant was free to move around the kitchen during the interview. However, a police officer testified that he would not have allowed the defendant to leave after he entered the residence. In other words, the defendant was not free to leave, but the officer never communicated that fact to the defendant.

The Third Department held that the officer’s subjective intent is irrelevant when determining whether or not a suspect was in custody at a particular time, where the officer’s subjective intent is not communicated to the suspect.  Instead, the proper inquiry is “what a reasonable [person], innocent of any crime, would have thought had he [or she] been in the defendant’s position.” The Court concluded, on the facts in the record, that a reasonable person would not have believed that he or she was in custody. Because he was not in custody during the questioning in his kitchen, the police were not required to give him Miranda warnings.

Further, the post-Miranda statements the defendant made at the police station cannot be considered “the fruit of the poisonous tree” because the initial statements were not the product of pre-Miranda custodial interrogation. The Court thus rejected the defendant’s claim that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to raise that ground for suppression of his post-Miranda statements. (BJD)