Tagged: jury instructions

May Decisions from the NY Court of Appeals

Several interesting criminal procedure decisions were handed down in May by the New York Court of Appeals:

People v. Stone2017 N.Y. Slip Op. 03559, 29 N.Y.3d 166 (May 4, 2017) (Court’s PDF) – Conviction affirmed where the defendant argued his right to confrontation was violated where a detective was permitted to testify that an unavailable witness had identified the defendant. The Court held that the trial court “eliminated any prejudice to defendant by striking the offending testimony from the record and instructing the jury to disregard the statements.”

People v. Bushey29 N.Y.3d 158, 53 N.Y.S.3d 604 (May 4, 2017) (Court’s PDF) – In this case, the Court held that a police officer may run a car’s license plate number through the government database without any suspicion of wrongdoing; that this does not constitute a search, and that any information obtained as result of such inquire may form probable cause for the police officer to stop the vehicle.

People v. Smalling, 29 N.Y.3d 981, 75 N.E.3d 665, 53 N.Y.S.3d 248 (May 2, 2017) (Court’s PDF) – In this case, the Court reversed a conviction and ordered a new trial where the trial court had agreed not to give a jury instruction on constructive possession but then ultimately did give such an instruction.

NY Court of Appeals Addresses Cross-Racial Identification Jury Instruction

As NYLJ reports in an article titled Ex-Judges and Prosecutors Ask to Join Case on Cross-Racial Identification written by Andrew Danney, the NY Court of Appeals, sitting in White Plains courthouse starting noon today through Thursday, is to hear a case addressing jury instruction on cross-racial eyewitness identification and number of members of the New York legal community seek to become amici parties to the case.

As the legal representative for the group stated:

We tell juries everyday that they should scrutinize testimony carefully, so it’s not a great leap to ask a trial judge to tell a jury that they should look at cross-race identifications with special care.


NYCA Upholds Use of Prior Bad Act Evidence to Rebut EED Claim

POST WRITTEN BYProf. Peter Widulski, Assistant Director of the First Year Legal Skills Program and the Coach of International Criminal Moot Court Team at Pace Law School.

Pursuant to N.Y. Penal Law § 125.25 (1)(a), a defendant charged with intentional murder may present an affirmative defense that at the time of the killing he suffered from an “extreme emotional disturbance” (EED) for which there is “a reasonable explanation or excuse.” If a preponderance of evidence supports this defense, defendant will be convicted of manslaughter, rather than murder.

The NY Court of Appeals has reviewed a dozen or so cases on the potential merits of an EED claim. Most of these presented the issue of whether the trial judge erred by declining defendant’s request to charge the jury on an EED defense. In a November 18, 2015, decision the Court of Appeals reviewed the case of People v. Israel, 2015 N.Y. Slip Op. 08370, in which the trial court did charge the jury on defendant’s EED claim, but the jury rejected it.

The key facts in Israel were that in June 2007 the defendant, upon seeing a friend chased and threatened by several men, fired a gun multiple times at the pursuers, killing one of them. With respect to the killing, the prosecution introduced alternative counts of intentional murder and depraved indifference murder. Note, however, that Penal Law permits an EED defense for an intentional murder charge but not for depraved indifference murder.

At trial in support of his EED claim, the defendant called a psychiatrist, who opined that defendant suffered (untreated) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of an altercation defendant had with two men in October 2005, during which defendant was stabbed eight times in the back. The expert testified that defendant reacted violently in June 2007 because his PTSD was triggered when he saw his friend being chased and attacked. The expert further testified that defendant was “not a violent person by nature” and had no “significant history of having done violent acts.”

To contest the claim that defendant’s action in June 2007 was attributable solely to the PTSD, the prosecution cross-examined the psychiatrist about two incidents prior to the stabbing and about one that occurred in 2010, in all of which defendant reacted violently with little or no provocation. Regarding the 2010 incident, the prosecution subsequently called to the stand a corrections officer, who testified that while defendant was incarcerated in August 2010, he smashed an inmate telephone in anger and threatened the officer.

In People v. Israel, the jury rejected defendant’s EED argument and convicted him of intentional murder for killing one of his friend’s pursuers and of attempted murder for firing at police officers who came to the scene.

The issue on appeal at the Appellate Division, First Department was whether the trial judge erred by allowing the prosecutor to cross-examine witnesses about the defendant’s other bad acts and to present testimony about the 2010 prison incident. As I wrote earlier, to be admissible such evidence must relate to a material issue and must not be used to show defendant’s propensity to commit wrongful acts.

The Court of Appeals unanimously held that by making an EED claim, defendant raised a material issue about his state of mind at the time of the killing and thus “opened the door” to rebuttal about whether PTSD was the sole reason for his actions at that time. Noting that objection to evidence of one of the two prior bad acts had effectively been waived at trial, the Court found that the prosecutor’s questions about defendant’s other bad act prior to his stabbing were for consideration, as the trial judge made clear in limiting instruction to the jury, only to the issue raised by defendant about his state of mind at the time of the killing and not for evidence of propensity.

The Court did agree with defendant that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of the 2010 prison incident (three years after the crime charged) because the focus of an EED defense must be on whether defendant was suffering from an EED at the time of the crime charged. This evidence should have been excluded as pointing only to propensity, but the Court held this error harmless because other admissible evidence showed “overwhelming” proof and affirmed defendant’s conviction.

Related Readings:

Supreme Court Reverses Conviction in Facebook-Threats Case

In a follow up to our previous post, the Supreme Court has now decided Elonis v. United States, reversing the conviction based on threats the defendant posted on Facebook against his ex-wife and others.  The Court held it was error for the lower court to instruct the jurors that the defendant could be convicted if the posts would be considered by a reasonable person to be threatening, characterizing that standard as one of traditional civil negligence.  The Court did not address the First Amendment issues concerning the criminalization of Facebook posts.

Related Readings:

NY Court of Appeals Addresses Another Statutory Presumption

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.

New York State has codified several evidentiary presumptions authorizing courts to instruct a jury that it may infer a fact necessary for an element of a crime charged from supporting facts that the jury finds the prosecution has proved beyond a reasonable doubt. In conformance with federal due process requirements, the inferences to be drawn are not mandatory but permissive. This means that based on the evidence – including any facts adduced by the defense during cross-examination or rebuttal – the jury may, but is not required to, draw an inference that the element has been established.

Such presumptions are potentially decisive for a defendant’s fate and should be carefully considered by the courts. Prior to submitting a case to the jury, trial courts must decide whether the evidence presented was sufficient to instruct the jury on a statutory presumption. Subsequently, appellate courts often are tasked with reviewing whether such an instruction, if given and may have determined the jury’s guilty verdict on the related charge, was improper and constituted an error requiring reversal of the conviction on that charge.

As discussed earlier, in June of this year the NY Court of Appeals, in a 5-2 decision, upheld a conviction pursuant to Penal Law § 265.03(1)(b) for possession of a loaded firearm with the intent to use it unlawfully against another person, where the conviction on this charge was based on an evidentiary presumption under Penal Law § 265.15(4) stating that “[t]he possession by any person of any … weapon … is presumptive evidence of intent to use the same unlawfully against another.” As noted previously, the Court did not fully address a possible constitutional issue regarding the application of the presumption in that case because the issue was not raised on appeal.

Recently the Court of Appeals heard People v. Kims, Slip. Op. 07196 (N.Y. Oct. 23, 2014) that, among other issues, involved the applicability of another statutory presumption. Penal Law § 220.25(2) provides, in summary, that the presence of certain controlled substances in open view in a non-public room under circumstances evincing an intent to prepare such substances for sale is “presumptive evidence of knowing possession thereof by each and every person in close proximity to such controlled substance ….”

The permissive inference allowed by section 220.25(2) has come to be termed the “drug factory” presumption. The New York State Legislature enacted this presumption in 1971 to aid prosecutors in proving a possession charge in circumstances where police did not find a controlled substance on the person of a defendant at the time the defendant was arrested. The presumption nevertheless permits a jury to find “constructive possession” in circumstances where the defendant is in “close proximity” to other facts regarding controlled substances mentioned in the statute.

Presumption in section 220.25(2) applies to any person in close proximity to a controlled substance in the circumstances set forth and is similar to presumption in section 265.15(4) that assigns criminal responsibility for any person in a vehicle in which a firearm is found. The presumptive criminal responsibility extended in these sections to a broad scope of persons provides prosecutors with plea-bargaining opportunities to turn associated persons against one another.

In People v. Kims, the Court of Appeals focused on the fact that the defendant was apprehended by police after exiting his apartment, in which police subsequently found controlled substances and was not trying to avoid arrest by fleeing the location. Under these circumstances, the Court agreed with the Fourth Department’s decision that the defendant, when apprehended, was not in “close proximity” to the controlled substances.

Accordingly, the Court unanimously affirmed the Appellate Division Fourth Department’s decision holding that the trial court erred when instructing the jury on Penal Law § 220.25(2)’s presumption. Relying on its previous decision in People v. Martinez, 628 N.E.2d 1320 (N.Y. 1993), the Court reasoned that in this case the trial court’s error in instructing the jury was not harmless because the jury’s verdict was based on the constructive possession inference. The Court affirmed the Fourth Department’s reversal of the convictions based on the presumption and ordered retrial on these charges, while affirming the defendant’s conviction on other charges.