POST WRITTEN BY: Prof. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.
The “mode of proceedings error” doctrine created by the NY Court of Appeals recognizes that some errors committed by a criminal trial court are so harmful to the integrity of the process that they are subject to appellate review even if defense counsel did not lodge an objection. The doctrine’s procedural safeguard is powerful because when it is held to apply, harmless error analysis is barred and the conviction must be reversed.
In a decision issued on June 7, 2016, the Court of Appeals had to determine whether a trial court committed such error when it accepted a jury’s guilty verdict on a charge of first-degree gang assault before the court had responded to certain notes from the jury requesting review of a court instruction and of testimony by a witness. On appeal, a divided panel of the Fourth Department found this to be a mode of proceedings error requiring reversal and a new trial. People v. Mack, 117 A.D. 3d 1450, 984 N.Y.S.2d 768 (App. Div. 4th Dep’t 2014). The People sought review by the Court of Appeals.
At issue was NY Criminal Procedure Law § 310.30’s requirement that a trial court receiving a note from a deliberating jury must provide counsel with notice of the content of the note and provide a meaningful response to the jury. Also at issue was the scope of the Court’s precedents in cases such as People v. O’Rama, 78 N.Y.2d 270, 579 N.E.2d 189, 574 N.Y.S.2d 159 (1991), in which the Court applied the mode of proceedings doctrine in the context of a court’s response or failure to respond to juror requests for further instruction.
In People v. Mack, it was undisputed that the trial court fulfilled its responsibility to inform counsel of the contents of the jury’s notes. The Court’s precedents also made clear that a court’s failure in that responsibility would constitute a mode of proceedings error. Six judges of the Court of Appeals considered that the issue presented was a new one: whether a mode of proceedings error was committed by a trial court that, although properly informing counsel of the content of jury notes, erred by not providing a response to the jury before accepting the verdict.
A 6-1 majority of the Court found against the defendant. The majority’s review of the Court’s precedents persuaded it that in the juror note context the mode of proceedings doctrine did not apply when, as in this case, defense counsel had sufficient notice, information, and opportunity to lodge an objection. In the majority’s view, the powerful force of the doctrine should not be deployed in such circumstances and where the thought of its applicability might provide perverse incentives to defense counsel to forego objecting.
Judge Rivera authored a forceful dissent. She disagreed with the majority’s statement that the issue presented was novel. In her view, a proper reading of the Court’s precedents indicated that the trial court committed a mode of proceedings error when it defaulted on its “core responsibility under CPL § 310.30” by accepting the jury’s verdict without first responding to its questions “or without alternatively asking the jurors whether they had withdrawn their requests.” With respect to the majority’s comment about perverse incentives, Judge Rivera argued that
[d]efendant’s preference or acquiescence is irrelevant because the duty [to comply with CPL § 310.30] works on the court, not the defendant.