Wednesday, June 21, 2006

AD4: refusal to allow defense to present evidence that placed defendant away from scene of shooting requires reversal

People v Collins, __ AD3d __ [available here]

Defendant Collins was charged with Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Second Degree and Reckless Endangerment in the First Degree in connection with a shooting that occurred on the sidewalk in front of a bar. In their Bill of Particulars, the People described the place of the shooting as "in the vicinity of 2261 Fillmore Avenue", the address of the bar. Collins wanted to put on proof that he was inside the bar at the time the shots were fired outside on the street, and thus could not have been the one firing the shots. The trial court would not let the evidence in because the defendant had not previously filed an alibi notice, and the Fourth Department held this was error requiring reversal.

First, the Fourth Department rejected the People's argument that the proposed evidence constituted an "alibi"; as the Court noted, the People drafted their bill of particulars very broadly (as prosecutors are wont to do), and it came back to bite them. The People described the location of the crime as "in the vicinity of 2261 Fillmore Avenue," and the Fourth Department had no problem finding that "the proposed evidence did not establish an alibi because he was in fact 'in the vicinity of 2261 Fillmore Avenue," and thus a notice of alibi was not required." (Collins, __ AD3d at __.)

The Court went on to hold that, even if a notice had been required, the inquiry is not finished. There is no "gotcha" type, technical game to be played when a defendant's constitutional right to present a defense is concerned. Even if evidence can be truly characterized as "alibi" evidence and the statutorily required notice is required, a trial court must still "balance 'the fundamental character of the defendant's right to offer the testimony of witnesses in his favor [pursuant to US Constitution Amendment VI against] . . . the interest in the fair and efficient administration of justice'." (Collins, quoting Taylor v Illinois, 484 US 400, 414-415.)