Category Archives: Case Summaries

Request to Proceed Pro Se Untimely If Made After Start of Jury Selection

When must a defendant invoke his or her right to proceed pro se in order for the request to be considered “timely”? In People v. Crespo (Ct. App. 10/16/2018) (4-3), the Court of Appeals held that a request to proceed pro se is timely if made “before the commencement of trial,” defined as before the start of jury selection. After the start of jury selection, the right to proceed pro se is “severely constricted,” but the trial court may grant such an application in its discretion. Judge Rivera authored a lengthy dissent, joined by Judges Fahey and Wilson. Continue reading

Rare AD2 Reversal for Factual Insufficiency

Under its factual review power, the Appellate Division sits as a “thirteenth juror” to determine whether the factfinder—the jury or, in a bench trial, the judge—was justified in finding the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  This assessment does not permit the court to view the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, as is required in a legal sufficiency review.  Since the Court of Appeals can only review questions of law, “weight of the evidence” decisions cannot be reviewed by that higher court.

Recently, the Second Department reversed a conviction on weight of the evidence grounds—a rare move.  In People v. Herskovic (App. Div. 2d Dept. 10/10/2018), the court reversed the defendant’s conviction for Gang Assault 2º and related charges, which stemmed from a 2013 attack upon the victim by a group of 20 Hasidic Jewish men in Brooklyn. The victim was not able to identify the defendant as one of the attackers.  The victim and eyewitnesses also gave conflicting accounts of the attack.

The People relied principally on DNA recovered from the defendant’s sneaker, which one of the attackers had taken off of him and thrown on a roof.   However, the DNA sample was small (97.9 picograms, short of the 100.0 picograms needed for a traditional DNA analysis) and was a mixture of two or more individuals’ DNA.   A criminologist testified to a procedure that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner had developed to analyze such small and mixed samples to determine a “likelihood ratio.”  However, even with these “tweaked” protocols, the court found the DNA evidence lacking:

The analysis also found that it was 133 times more likely that the DNA sample originated from the defendant and the complainant than from the complainant and an unknown unrelated person. The FST analysis of the DNA was based upon a Caucasian population, and failed to take into account the genetic history of the defendant, a member of the Hasidic population. Moreover, the likelihood ratio result was only 133, a relatively insubstantial number.

Based on the weak testimony and “less than convincing” DNA analysis, the court reversed on the facts.  As a result, the defendant may not be retried.  For more on this case, see this article from the New York Law Journal (subscription required).

Sufficiency of Accusatory Instrument Charging Patronizing a Prostitute 3º

A few days ago, the Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Term’s decision dismissing an accusatory instrument as jurisdictionally defective.  At issue was whether the term “manual stimulation” in the context of Patronizing a Prostitute 3º was sufficient.

At the Appellate Term, the defendant argued, “the [term] ‘manual stimulation’ he sought could refer to a ‘foot rub, therapeutic massage, chiropractic adjustment, personal training – even an energetic match of thumb wrestling’.”

I think I’ll let the Court of Appeals’ opinion on this issue speak for itself:

The factual allegations that defendant requested “manual stimulation” from a woman on a street corner, for a specific sum of money, at 2:25 a.m., supplied “defendant with sufficient notice of the charged crime to satisfy the demands of due process and double jeopardy” (People v Dreyden, 15 NY3d 100, 103 [2010]). Defendant’s argument that “manual stimulation” could be indicative of nonsexual conduct ignores the inferences of sexual activity to be drawn from the factual context in which the statement was alleged to have been made—a late night solicitation of a physical personal service from an individual on a public street, in exchange for a sum of money. Any assertion that defendant was referring to a nonsexual activity “was a matter to be raised as an evidentiary defense not by insistence that this information was jurisdictionally defective” (see Casey, 95 NY2d at 360). The fact that the instrument used a clinical phrase for the sexual activity alleged does not render the instrument jurisdictionally defective.

(LC).

Sufficiently Pleading an Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle Charge

For a misdemeanor complaint to be facially sufficient, the accusatory instrument must provide facts that would establish each element of the crimes being charged. In People v. Bajas (App. Term 2d Dept. 8/31/2018), the Court affirmed the defendant’s conviction,  holding that the allegations in the accusatory instrument sufficiently alleged facts that established the “control or use of [a] vehicle” element of Penal Law § 165.05(1). The case drew a dissent from Judge Weston.

The defendant was arrested after an officer observed the defendant, at 4:24 AM, pull the handle of a 2006 Ford Suburban, enter the vehicle, and rummage through the glove compartment and center console of the Ford Suburban. The defendant was arrested and charged with Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3°, Attempted Petit Larceny, and Resisting Arrest. During his second court appearance, the defendant pleaded guilty to Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3° with the understanding that if he successfully completed a drug treatment program, the case would be dismissed. If he was unsuccessful in treatment, the defendant would be sentenced to one year of incarceration to run concurrently with a sentence on a prior, unrelated, felony charge. The defendant did not complete the drug treatment program and was sentenced to imprisonment.

On appeal, defendant contends that his conviction should be reversed because the factual part of the accusatory instrument, which merely alleged that he had entered a vehicle and rummaged through the glove compartment and the center console, did not satisfy the reasonable cause requirement for a misdemeanor complaint charging Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the Third degree. A person is guilty of Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle in the 3° when:

[k]nowing that he does not have the consent of the owner, he takes, operates, exercises control over, rides in or otherwise uses a vehicle. A person who engages in any such conduct without the consent of the owner is presumed to know that he does not have such consent.

The broad language of the statute has been interpreted to apply to a person who “enters an automobile without permission and takes actions that interfere with or are detrimental to the owner’s possession or use of the vehicle.” Entry into a vehicle alone is not enough; there must be some degree of control or use. The court relied on this reasoning for holding that the defendant’s rummaging through the car and center console satisfied the statute.

Judge Weston, on the other hand, would have reversed the judgment, vacated the guilty plea, and dismissed the accusatory instrument. In her dissent, Judge Weston pointed to the majority’s reliance on the Court of Appeals decision in People v. Franov. Franov dealt with an entry into a vehicle where the defendant vandalized and then removed certain automotive parts from the dashboard. Judge Weston believed that merely rummaging through a vehicle does not constitute vandalism, and since there was no allegation in the accusatory instrument of any further action on the part of defendant, in addition to the entry, the statute was not satisfied. Instead, Judge Weston would have the Court follow the same rationale as a similar previously decided case, People v. Gavrilov. This case held that the defendant’s entry into a vehicle and stealing a wallet from inside was not enough to constitute “use or control” of the vehicle for the purposes of the statute. Here, there was not even property taken (MK/LC.

Unanswered Jury Notes: Cause for New Trial?

In People v. Parker (Ct. App. 6/28/2018) (Rivera, J.),  the Court granted the defendants’ request for a new trial due to the trial court’s failure to provide “meaningful notice” of two jury notes to defense counsel. The defendants were convicted of Robbery 2º after allegedly robbing thousands of dollars from a commercial establishment.

On the second day of jury deliberations, the jury sent three notes to the court: one note requested definitions of the charged crimes and testimony linking witnesses to where the defendants were seen and caught; a second note requested further testimony relating to fingerprint evidence; and a third requested testimony from the victim and his wife. In response to the jury’s notes, the court initially responded to solely the first note and subsequently dismissed the jury for a one-hour lunch break. However, immediately after the break and without receiving response to its latter two notes, the jury entered a verdict.

Under CPL § 310.30, a trial court is required to direct that the jury be returned to the courtroom after notice has been given to the defense counsel of any substantive notes provided by the jury. This allows defense counsel an opportunity to formulate a response to the jury’s inquiries before the jury’s return to the courtroom. In this case, it was undisputed that the defense counsel was not informed of the contents of the latter two jury notes. As the Court provides in its opinion, the proof that the trial court relayed the substance of the notes to the defense counsel must be specifically in the record. Here, it was not. Therefore, the Court found that the “sole remedy” in failing to comply with CPL § 310.30 was to reverse and grant the defendants’ a new trial.

Chief Judge DiFiore dissented, remarking that the holding of the majority’s leading precedent focused on a more general concept. She argued that O’Rama‘s holding required the trial court’s compliance with providing notice to defense counsel of the jury notes; it did not mandate the inclusion of such notice in the record. The Chief Judge wrote that the defense counsel was indeed informed of the overall substance of the jury notes in an off-the-record meeting. As such, she argued that ordering a new trial was an excessive remedy and completely off-base with O’Rama‘s requirements. Instead, Chief Judge DiFiore proposed the remedy of a reconstruction hearing, which is provided to amend ambiguities in the record. Importantly, the Chief Judge also noted that the jury was well aware that the trial court had not responded to the latter two notes it had received. However, the jury’s verdict ultimately rescinded the requests in those notes, further supporting the argument that ordering a new trial was unwarranted (AP/LC).