Tag Archives: Larry Cunningham

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.

Appeal Waivers

I have a piece in tomorrow’s New York Journal arguing that waivers of the right to appeal serve a valid and important purpose in the criminal justice system.  Here is an excerpt:

The settlement of a case signifies the end—not the beginning or continuation—of litigation. This is true in both civil litigation and criminal cases. By pleading guilty, the accused is conceding that the People have the requisite proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that a trial is unnecessary. Typically, the relinquishment of trial-based rights is given in exchange for some benefit at sentencing. The parties have reached a mutual agreement, and the case should end.

Appellate litigation is not without costs. The indigent defendant is entitled to a court-appointed lawyer, the People must assign an assistant to write and argue a brief, and the intermediate appellate court must take the time to hear and decide the case. Doing all of this in the context of where the parties have come together to reach an agreement is a waste of resources for all sides and the court.

And so, it is no wonder that district attorneys and some judges insist on appeal waivers as part of guilty pleas. But the choice to accept or reject such a waiver always remains with the defendant, a point the Court of Appeals emphasized in People v. Seaberg, 74 N.Y.2d 1, 8-9 (1989), when it upheld the constitutionality of appeal waivers. People v. Batista, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 7445 (2d Dept. Nov. 7, 2018), reminds plea courts that they must not conflate appeal waivers with the litany of rights that a defendant gives up by pleading guilty.

Thus, it is immaterial whether such waivers are asked for “across-the-board”; an individual defendant is always free to reject it.

At a time when our courts—particularly our intermediate appellate courts—are stretched thin (see Andrew Denney, “NY Appeals Judges Say Trial Courts Should Act to Quell Appeal Waiver Challenges,” N.Y.L.J., Nov. 9, 2018 (noting the delays in the overburdened Second Department)), precious judicial resources should be reserved for those cases where there are meritorious arguments in live cases, not ones where the parties have concluded that litigation should end. If the defendant in a particular case disagrees, he or she should reject any plea offer that contains an appeal waiver, proceed to trial, and, if convicted, litigate an appeal, as is his or her constitutional right.

 

The Importance of Jury Note Readings, as Shown by a Pro Se Defendant

In People v. Timmons (4th Dept. 10/5/18), the Fourth Department allowed for a reconstruction regarding whether the trial court did not provide adequate notice to defense counsel when it did not read out a jury note verbatim.

The defendant in this case was tried and convicted by a jury of Murder 2º.  He appealed to the Fourth Department, and it affirmed the conviction. However, the defendant filed a writ of error coram nobis, because he contended his appellate counsel failed to raise an issue on appeal that may have merit: a violation of CPL § 310.30 in regard to a note from the jury in its deliberations.

CPL 310.30 requires the jury to return to the courtroom after notice to both the People and counsel for the defendant and give instruction as the court deems proper. When there is a substantive note from the jury, the court must provide counsel with meaningful notice of the content of the note, and the court must provide a meaningful response to the jury. This means actual, specific content of the jurors’ request must be disclosed. The Court of Appeals has held that a trial court’s failure to read a jury’s note verbatim deprives counsel of the opportunity to analyze accurately the jury’s deliberations and frame intelligent suggestions for the court’s response.

The defendant here contended that the trial court failed to read the note from the jury verbatim, and the transcript shows that instead in the reading both in front of and outside the presence of the jury, omitted to read the jury’s request to have a read back of the medical examiner’s testimony, and to have that testimony read first.

The People contended that it was the transcript that was in fact incorrect, and that the trial judge did read verbatim the jury note. They relied upon an affidavit from the court reporter that was submitted in response to the defendant’s writ. The affidavit stated that a stenographic error may have resulted in a transcript that did not accurately reflect whether the court read the entire content of the note verbatim in open court prior to responding to the jury.

The Fourth Department held that the alleged error in the transcript of the court’s on the record reading of the note was subject to a reconstruction hearing because the trial judge is the final arbiter of the record certified to the appellate courts. Therefore, the case was reversed and remitted to the County Court for the reconstruction hearing. (JC)

 

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).