Thursday, February 09, 2006

AD4: Bruton and Crawford violations require reversal

People v Kyser, __ AD3d __ [available here]

The Fourth Department handed down an interesting decision this past Friday that highlights the interplay (overlap?) of two landmark United States Supreme Court decisions--People v Bruton (391 US 123) and People v Crawford (541 US 36). The facts are typical of a Bruton situation--the defendant was a passenger in a vehicle where drugs were found, and both defendant and the codefendant driver were charged with possessing the drugs and each gave a written statement claiming the other man possessed the drugs. The defendant passenger "moved to sever his trial from that of his codefendant based, inter alia, on the ground that an out-of-court statement made by his codefendant would implicate him and he would be unable to confront and cross-examine the codefendant." (People v Kyser, __ AD3d at __.) The trial court denied the motion, "and the statement of the codefendant that he possessed the cocaine was admitted in evidence at the joint trial." (Id. at __.) This was clear reversible error under Bruton, and the Fourth Department so held and reversed accordingly.

But the Fourth Department also went a step further and reached defendant's unpreserved argument based on Crawford v Washington. From the decision:

Defendant further contends that reversal is required based on a Crawford violation. Although defendant failed to preserve his contention for our review, we exercise our power to reach defendant's contention as a matter of discretion in the interest of justice, and we conclude that reversal is required on that ground as well. The out-of-court statement of a witness that is testimonial in nature is barred under the Confrontation Clause unless the witness is unavailable and defendant had a prior opportunity to cross-examine the witness. Here, the out-of-court statement of the codefendant that implicated defendant in the possession of the cocaine was testimonial in nature and was offered for the truth of the facts asserted therein, and thus the admission of that statement in evidence was in violation of the Confrontation Clause.

(Id. at __.)

The practical result of the reversal on the Crawford ground is that not only will the defendant's retrial be severed from that of his codefendant (the remedy under Bruton, but the codefendant's statement will not be admissible under any of the classic hearsay exceptions. This is an interesting decision not only for the unique Bruton--Crawford interplay, but also because it is nice to see the Fourth Department reaching an unpreserved Crawford issue in the interest of justice.