Category Archives: Constitutional Law

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)

Searching Cell Phones: Confirmation to get the Warrant

In People v. Hackett (4th Dept. 11/9/2018), the Fourth Department analyzed a cell phone search under the 2014 Supreme Court decision Riley v. California to find that officers may send a confirmatory text message to a defendant’s cell phone when they have been in undercover communication with him to ensure they have the proper defendant. This confirmatory text may then be used to support a valid search warrant of the defendant’s cell phone. Continue reading

Speedy Proceedings Leading to Involuntary Plea Deals?

It is well established that trial courts have the responsibility of ensuring that a defendant who pleads guilty is doing so knowingly, voluntarily, and making an intelligent choice among alternative courses of action. However, this does not require courts, at the time of the defendant’s guilty plea, to ask defendants an established set of questions to ensure that the guilty plea is entered into knowingly and voluntarily. In People v. Cappiello (App. Term 2d Dept. 2018) the Appellate Term, Second Department, upheld the defendant’s guilty plea as having been entered into knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently and that the defendant understood the consequences of her plea.

During the defendant’s arraignment, the prosecutor made the court aware that there was a plea agreement in place in which the defendant would plead guilty to one count of Petit Larceny (Penal Law § 155.25) and would serve a 20 day sentence. In response, defense counsel stated that he had spoken with the defendant, and after advising her of her rights and the offer from the D.A., she had advised him to enter a plea of guilty with the understanding that she would only serve 20 days in jail. Defense counsel then waived a formal allocution.

This case drew a dissent from Judge Weston in which he voted to reverse the judgment of conviction, vacate the defendant’s guilty plea, and dismiss the accusatory instrument in the interest of justice. Quoting the arraignment transcript, Judge Weston took issue with the lack of dialogue between the court and the defendant when she was entering her guilty plea. Unlike other cases where a judge may ask the defendant a series of questions regarding the guilty plea, here, the defendant had no interaction with the court. As Judge Weston pointed out, the only proof that defendant waived her rights was her counsel’s general statement that he had “advis[ed] her of her rights,” which was not made in response to any court inquiry. This lack of on the record evidence calls into question whether or not the defendant truly knew the consequences of her guilty plea.

While Judge Weston understood the policy behind judges needing to keep arraignments moving quickly in the interest of judicial economy, he stated that a court still has the responsibility to ensure that a defendant enters a voluntary and knowing guilty plea.  (MK/LC)

Defendant’s Waiver of Grand Jury Indictment

Initially, under the New York Constitution, criminal defendants were unable to waive an indictment by Grand Jury. However, in 1974, the Constitution was amended to permit  waiver so long as a waiver is signed in open court in front of defendant’s counsel. Recently, the Court of Appeals affirmed this practice in People v. Myers (Ct. App. 6/27/2018) (Wilson, J.) (5-2).

Mr. Myers waived his right to an indictment by the Grand Jury and immediately after pleaded guilty to Burglary 3º. Prior to this, Mr. Myers had an opportunity to confer with his counsel off the record, and while the judge called the other cases on the calendar, he had an opportunity to meet with his attorney at the lectern about the waiver form. The judge then asked Mr. Myers’ counsel if he was ready, and when he said yes, the judge signed the order approving the waiver after determining it met the statutory requirements.

Mr. Myers argued that the indictment was invalid because there was no evidence the waiver was executed in open court and there was no conversation with the court on the subject. The Appellate Division upheld the waiver.

New York Constitution, article I, section 6 allows for waiver of a grand jury indictment if it is consented by the district attorney, and “evidenced by written instrument signed by the defendant in open court in the presence of his or her counsel.” In this case, the record shows that the waiver was signed in open court. Mr. Myers’ attorney notarized his signature on the waiver on the date of the court appearance.

The defendant’s argument that there was no inquiry by the court into whether his waiver was knowing and intelligent was unsupported by the New York Constitution, the Court held. Instead, the Court found that the requirements set forth in the statute (signed in open court, in the presence of counsel) were met. Thus, the Court declined to read into the statute the additional requirement of the judge conducting an oral inquiry on the record. The Court noted that “[c]ompliance with the constitutionally-specified waiver mechanism establishes the prima facie validity of the waiver of the right to prosecution by indictment.” There was no evidence on the record that the waiver was involuntary, unknowing, or unintelligent, so the prima facie showing was deemed by the Court to be conclusive.

Therefore, the Court affirmed the order of the Appellate Division but noted:

We emphasize, however, that the better practice—captured in the relevant model colloquy—is for courts to elicit defendants’ understanding of the significance of the right being waived, to minimize future challenges to the effectiveness of the waiver (see Waiver of Indictment; Superior Court Information Procedure & Colloquy, https://www.nycourts.gov/judges/cji/8-Colloquies/ [accessed June 22, 2018]).

Judge Rivera dissented because she believed that “[n]o waiver is valid without sufficient judicial inquiry.” (JC)

Sufficiently Related Crimes and Triggering the Indelible Right to Counsel

Under New York law, a defendant who is represented by counsel on a criminal matter may, under certain circumstances, be questioned by law enforcement about a different, unrepresented crime without violating a defendant’s right to counsel. In People v. Henry (Ct. App. 6/12/2018) (Wilson, J.) (7-0), the Court of Appeals, reversing the Appellate Division, held that police did not violate Mr. Henry’s right to counsel when they interrogated him about a murder charge for which he was not represented by counsel. (Full disclosure: counsel for the appellant in this case is an adjunct professor at St. John’s Law in our advocacy program.)

The case stemmed from a robbery at a tattoo parlor and a shooting at a gas station of a 19-year-old man in which the same getaway vehicle, a black Hyundai Sonata with dark tinted windows, was used at the scene of the crimes. Five days later, Mr. Henry, driving a black Hyundai Sonata with dark tinted windows, was pulled over for traffic infractions and arrested for marijuana possession. Mr. Henry was assigned counsel on the marijuana charges. Upon an inventory search of Mr. Henry’s vehicle, police found evidence in his car linking him to the robbery of the tattoo parlor. Three days after his release, Mr. Henry was again pulled over for traffic infractions, but this time was arrested and brought in for interrogation in connection to the robbery and murder. Mr. Henry was read his Miranda rights, which he waived, and subsequently admitted to being the driver of the vehicle involved in the robbery and murder. A grand jury returned an indictment charging Mr. Henry with multiple counts of Robbery 1º, CPW 2º, Criminal Possession of Stolen Property 5º, Murder 2º, and Criminal Possession of Marijuana 5º. Continue reading