Thursday, February 16, 2006

Court of Appeals Overload!

The Court of Appeals handed down three more decisions today, all significant. This brings the total number of decisions handed down this week to six. Rather than string things out by posting about one decision a day, here are all five of the heretofore un-blogged about decisions, with a nutshell summary of the important holdings.

People v Lopez, __ NY3d __ [available here]

In a decision of impact for everyday appellate practitioners, the Court of Appeals (in a decision written by Chief Judge Kaye) holds that "when a defendant enters into a guilty plea that includes a valid waiver of the right to appeal, that waiver includes any challenge to the severity of the sentence. By pleading guilty and waiving the right to appeal, a defendant has foregone review of the terms of the plea, including harshness and excessiveness of the sentence." (People v Lopez, __ NY3d at __.) Given this holding, Judge Kaye stresses the care that must be taken in eliciting a waiver of the right to appeal:

Because only a few reviewable issues survive a valid appeal waiver, it is all the more important for trial courts to ensure that defendants understand what they are surrendering when they waive the right to appeal. Giving up the right to appeal is not a perfunctory step. [...] When a trial court characterizes an appeal as one of many rights automatically extinguished upon entry of a guilty plea, a reviewing court cannot be certain that the defendant comprehended the nature of the waiver of the appellate rights. The record must establish that the defendant understood that the right to appeal is separate and distinct from those rights automatically forfeited upon a plea of guilty . . . When a trial court inaccurately employs the language of forfeiture in a situation of waiver, it has mischaracterized the nature of the right a defendant was being asked to cede.

(Id. at __.)

Judge G.B. Smith dissented, and would have held that, because the Appellate Division's "interest of justice" jurisdiction is guaranteed by the New York Constitution, barring a defendant from "invoking the Appellate Division's interest-of-justice power to review and reduce sentences . . . is a divesture of the Appellate Division's power with regard to that defendant and a violation of article VI, section 4(k) of the New York State Constitution." (Id. at __.)

People v Miller, __ NY3d __ [available here]

In a decision written by Judge Rosenblatt, the Court of Appeals holds that Murder in the Second Degree is always an "inclusory concurrent count" of Murder in the First Degree, and therefore a defendant convicted of Murder in the First Degree is entitled to have any Murder in the Second Degree charges based on the same killing dismissed upon conviction of the Murder in the First Degree. As explained by Judge Rosenblatt, Murder in the First Degree is simply an intentional murder (i.e. a Murder in the Second Degree) plus an aggravating factor listed in the statute, and "it is impossible to commit intentional murder plus without at the same time committing intentional murder." (People v Miller, __ NY3d at __.)

People v DeCosta, __ NY3d __ [available here]

The Court of Appeals held the evidence was sufficient to support defendant's conviction for manslaughter in the second degree where defendant fled across a six-lane expressway and an officer was hit by a car and killed while giving chase. (See my previous post on this case here.)

People v Waldron, __ NY3d __ [available here]

The issue in Waldron was whether a certain chunk of time was chargeable to the People for speedy trial purposes. Defendant's attorney sent the prosecutor a letter asking the prosecutor to hold off presenting the case to the grand jury while plea negotiations continued, and the letter further stated "the defendant does hereby waive any speedy trial or other rights that he may have by your concurring in this request." (Waldron, __ NY3d at __.) However, defendant subsequently "sought and paid for the legal advice of another inmate", discharged his attorney, and brought his own speedy trial motion wherein he denied ever consenting to the waiver of his speedy trial rights. (Id. at __.) The Court of Appeals held "[o]n this record, where defendant's counsel explicitly waived speedy trial rights in order to complete ongoing plea negotiations, such time is excludable." (Id. at __.)

People v Burns, __ NY3d __ [available here.

The defendant in Burns was charged with murder after a shootout left the defendant injured and the victim killed. The defense argued that defendant was not the shooter, but rather he and the victim were both shot by the same "gang of Hispanic men." (Burns, __ NY3d at __.) A statement taken by the police from an identified witness "placed five armed Hispanic men a few New York City blocks away from the scene of the shootout on the same day at roughly the same time . . . [and] [a]fter declarant had walked about two blocks from the site of this encounter, he heard gunshots and sirens." (Id. at __.) The Court of Appeals found the trial court's exclusion of this statement on hearsay grounds did not violate defendant's constitutional right to present a defense because "the trial court offered defendant a 'so ordered' subpoena for declarant to testify and the opportunity to make an offer of proof." (Id. at __.)