Tuesday, February 07, 2006

AD4: felony complaint supported by unidentified "eyewitnesses" is facially insufficient, cannot be supplemented by in camera submissions

Fitzpatrick v Rosenthal, __ AD3d __ [available here]

A Syracuse man was arrested without a warrant and arraigned before the Syracuse City Court on five felony complaints drafted and affirmed by a police detective. The complaints state "that the sources of the affirming detective's information are 'eyewitness accounts'," and "[n]o witness statement or police report was attached to any of the felony complaints." (Fitzpatrick v Rosenthal, __ AD3d at __.) Defense counsel argued that the complaints were facially insufficient; the District Attorney disagreed but argued in the alternative that the City Court was "required by law to consider evidentiary material submitted ex parte by the People for in camera review" to determine sufficiency. (Id at __.) The City Court agreed with defense counsel and tossed the felony complaints as facially insufficient to confer jurisdiction on the court. (Id at __.) The People commenced an article 78 in Onondaga County Supreme Court to challenge the City Court's ruling, and the Supreme Court found the complaints facially sufficient and reinstated the felony complaints.

On appeal, the Fourth Department (in an opinion written by Justice Hurlbutt) agreed with the City Court and reversed. Justice Hurlbutt first recognized that a felony complaint is only sufficient to confer jurisdiction over defendant if "the allegations of the factual part of such accusatory instrument and/or any supporting depositions which may accompany it, provide reasonable cause to believe that the defendant committed the offense charged in the accusatory part of such instrument." (Id. at __ [quoting CPL 100.40[4].) Further, "[w]here a demonstration of probable or reasonable cause is based on hearsay information, New York courts apply the Aguilar-Spinelli test, requiring that the hearsay affiant establish 'that the informant had some basis for the knowledge . . transmitted . . . and that [the informant] was reliable.'" (Id. at __ [brackets in original].) From that starting point, Justice Hurlbutt had little problem finding that the felony complaints--that only set forth the conclusory basis of the detectives information as "eyewitness accounts"--failed to meet the Aguilar-Spinelli test. The detective's conclusory characterization of the informant as an "eyewitness" gave no indication of the basis of the informant's knowledge, and reliability was not shown because "[n]o information was furnished to the court concerning whether the 'eyewitness accounts' came from an anonymous or a paid informant, in which event an independent showing of reliability would have been required, or whether those accounts came from an identified citizen informant, in which event there would be no need to furnish further evidence of reliability." (Id. at __.)

Justice Hurlbutt also rejected the People's argument that the City Court judge was required to go beyond the face of the felony complaint and consider additional information in camera before passing on the sufficiency of the complaints, instead holding as follows:

Both the District Attorney and the courts . . . are bound by the constitutionally-based statutory requirement that reasonable cause must be demonstrated on the face of an accusatory instrument in order to confer jurisdiction of the criminal action and control over the liberty of an accused person. The District Attorney's brief on appeal notes that, on the arraignment of Madison before Judge Rosenthal, "the prosecutor offered to try to orally confirm that the eyewitness identified [Madison] and was in a position to observe Madison." Assuming, arguendo, that the "eyewitness" was an identified citizen who both personally observed the criminal conduct and either knew or had identified Madison, we conclude that reasonable cause would have been established if such information had been included in an amended, supplemental, or replacement felony complaint. That did not occur, however, and thus Judge Rosenthal was not only authorized to dismiss the felony complaints, but indeed properly did so.

(Id. at __.)

To recap: in order to be sufficient, a felony complaint must contain facts setting forth all the elements of the crime charged, and if hearsay is relied on to make out the factual elements, it must be hearsay that passes the Aguilar-Spinelli test; moreover, the information must be in the felony complaint itself or attached to the complaint, and a criminal court judge is not required or allowed to consider any additional in camera information. A nice common-sense decision that clarifies an everyday point of criminal practice.