Category Archives: Constitutional Law

Prosecutorial Misconduct: How Much Warrants Reversal

In People v. Fick (4th Dept. 12/21/2018), the Fourth Department found that a prosecutor’s cross-examination of a witness regarding inadmissible evidence constituted proper misconduct; however, the majority did not find that it was enough to constitute a reversal of the defendant’s convictions.

At the lower court, the defendant was convicted of Burglary 1°, Grand Larceny 4°, and Unlawful Imprisonment 1°. The defendant made several contentions on appeal that were rejected by the Court. The Court found that the evidence did support a conviction and the verdict was not against the weight of the evidence.

The defendant also contended that he was deprived of a fair trial by the prosecutor. However, during trial he did not object to any alleged instances of prosecutorial misconduct, so this contention was not preserved for appeal. The Court still looked into the merits of this claim; however, it found that on the whole it failed because all the comments made by the prosecutor were fair.

Nevertheless, the Court agreed with the defendant’s contention that the prosecutor exceeded the bounds of propriety by cross-examining a defense witness regarding an uncharged crime that the defendant allegedly committed and by placing his credibility at issue in doing so. The Court held that in this case, the prosecutor strayed outside the four corners of evidence and the jury should be deciding a case solely on the evidence.

Despite this finding by the Court, it held that reversal was not warranted. This is because the Court found that the error had not substantially prejudiced the defendant’s trial. The dissenting judges pointed out that this very prosecutor had been admonished before on appeal. However, the admonishment had occurred after the trial in this case. The Court noted that although it strongly condemned the prosecutor’s conduct, it did not find it warranted reversal.

The defendant also contended that he was denied effective assistance of counsel due to the lack of objection to these prosecutorial errors. The Court rejected his claim.

The dissenting judges agreed with the majority that the defendant’s contention was valid, but they opined that the prosecutor did cause substantial prejudice to the defendant. Further, they stated that the prosecutor’s remarks during summation were inflammatory and prejudicial to the defendant. For these reasons, the dissenters wrote that they could conclude that absent such misconduct, the same result would have been reached. (JC/LC)

Criminal Contempt Conviction Upheld Even Without Order of Protection in Evidence

In People v. Simpson (App. Term 2d Dept. 11/29/2018), the defendant was charged with Stalking 4° for incidents that had occurred in 2011 and 2012 involving the girlfriend (the victim) of defendant’s husband. Defendant was also charged with Criminal Contempt 2° based on an incident that had occurred in October 2013, in which defendant had allegedly violated an order of protection in favor of the victim and against the defendant. After a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of Criminal Contempt 2°. The Appellate Term, Second Department, affirmed the defendant’s conviction, but the decision drew a dissent from Justice Brands.

At trial, the victim testified that in October 2013, she had been sitting in her car on the phone when the defendant approached her vehicle and asked the victim questions regarding her relationship with the defendant’s husband. The defendant then allegedly threatened the victim, telling her that “she would pay.” The victim filed a report with the police shortly after. After the People rested their case-in-chief, defense counsel unsuccessfully moved for a trial order of dismissal on the Stalking charge but also stated on the record that they could not in good-faith move to dismiss the Criminal Contempt 2º charge. Prior to summations, both parties stipulated that there was a valid order of protection in favor of the victim against the defendant at the time of the alleged incident. But a copy of the order of protection was not produced. Defendant was acquitted of the Stalking charge but convicted of Criminal Contempt 2°.

On appeal, Defendant contended that the People did not prove her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of Criminal Contempt 2º because they failed to introduce into evidence the order of protection, and there was otherwise no proof of the conduct that it prohibited. The Court declined to review this, stating that Defendant’s claim was unpreserved when she failed to move to dismiss the charge at trial. Defendant also claimed on appeal the denial of effective assistance of counsel. Here, the Court held that the defendant was not denied effective assistance of counsel because defense counsel had extensively cross-examined the victim and brought out credibility issues that the jury took into account as well as getting an acquittal on the stalking charge.

Justice Brands would have reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. As to the defendant’s first claim, Justice Brands agreed with the defendant’s contention that the People’s evidence was insufficient for a conviction on the criminal contempt charge. Even though it was stipulated into the record that there was a valid order of protection in place, the actual contents of the order of protection, namely delineating the type of order of protection and the conduct the defendant must refrain from doing, were not entered into the record. Without the contents of the order of protection, Justice Brands reasoned that there was no proof Defendant violated any of its terms. Because defense counsel did not move to dismiss the Criminal Contempt charge in the absence of an order of protection in evidence, Justice Brands stated that this alone would be enough to grant Defendant relief for ineffective assistance of counsel. Justice Brands stated that this case represents a “rare occasion” in which a single misstep by defense counsel can rise to the level of ineffective assistance. (MK/LC)

Wrong Advice and Lack of Support By Defense Counsel Leads to Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

In People v. Griffith (4th Dept. 11/9/2018), the Fourth Department found that the defendant had been denied effective assistance of counsel when his attorney refused to assist him in appealing his denied petition for a downward modification under the Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA). The defendant claimed in his petition that he was entitled to a downward modification of his previously-imposed classification as a level three risk pursuant to Correction Law §168-o(2). The court initially found that the defendant’s claim on appeal arises under CPLR 5701 not under Correction Law §168-o(2).

When the defendant moved forward with his petition, his assigned counsel wrote a letter to the court indicating that the petition was meritless and that he would not support the petition. Additionally, he advised the defendant to withdraw the petition so that defendant would not delay his right to file a new modification petition in two years. But the defendant’s counsel was wrong. Under Correction Law §168-o(2) a defendant may file a petition “no more than once annually.”

The Court concluded that by refusing to support the defendant’s petition and giving him incorrect advice, there was ineffective assistance of counsel because the defendant’s attorney essentially became a witness against the defendant and took a position adverse to him. (MK/LC)

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.