Monday, May 07, 2007

CA: Decisions for May 1 & 3, 2007

Defendant's denial of guilt, challenge to time of arrest and reliability of witness sufficient to warrant probable cause hearing

People v Bryant, 2007 NY Slip Op 03791 [available here]

The trial court in Bryant denied the defendant's request for a probable cause hearing "on the ground that defendant failed to present sufficient information to obtain a hearing where defendant denied acting as the principal or accomplice, raised a question of fact regarding the time of his arrest and challenged the reliability of the alleged witness." (Bryant, 2007 NY Slip Op 03791 at __.) The Court of Appeals (in a unanimous decision by Judge Jones) reversed, noting that the defendant could not have been expected to be more precise in his pleadings when the People were not divulging much by way of discovery. "Here, defendant . . . lacked critical information only the People could provide--i.e., the factual predicate for his arrest. Because defendant lacked this information, he was not in a position to allege facts disputing the basis for his arrest. The People could not both refuse to disclose the informant's identity, or at least some facts showing a basis for the informant's knowledge the police relied upon to establish probable cause for the arrest, and insist the defendant's averments in his pleadings were insufficient to obtain a Mapp/Dunaway hearing." (Id. at __.) A very useful decision for the criminal defense bar.

Intoxication is not an affirmative defense to third-degree sodomy

People v Newton, 2007 NY Slip Op 03754 [available here]

The Court (in a unanimous decision by Judge Read)holds that intoxication is not an affirmative defense to sodomy in the third degree. To be guilty of sodomy in the third degree, a defendant must engage in a sex act with another person without consent. The statute makes the standard for determining "consent" an objective one; the question is whether "a reasonable person in the actor's situation would have understood such person's words and acts as an expression of lack of consent to such act under all the circumstances." (Newton, 2007 NY Slip Op 03754 [quoting Penal Law 130.05[2][d].) The Court held that, "[b]ecause a defendant's subjective mental state is not an element of the crime of third-degree sodomy, evidence of intoxication at the time of the sexual act is irrelevant. Thus, the trial judge in this case properly declined to instruct the jury on intoxication with respect to the charge of this crime." (Newton, 2007 NY Slip Op 03754.)

I agree with that last bit; if there is no intentional mens rea, then a defendant is not entitled to have intoxication charged as an affirmative defense. But it seems to go a bit further than necessary to say that evidence of intoxication is "irrelevant" to the crime of third-degree sodomy. The standard is an objective one, but the issue of consent is viewed from the perspective of a "reasonable person in the actor's situation". If the defendant is intoxicated at the time of the incident, then it would seem the proper inquiry for the jury is whether a reasonable, intoxicated person would have understood the complainant's words and actions to indicate a lack of consent. While not technically an affirmative defense that needs to be charged to the jury, a defendant's intoxication is nevertheless a fact to be considered by the jury in determining guilt. So, again, perhaps saying evidence of intoxication is "irrelevant" takes things a little too far.

Bite my finger

People v Chiddick, 2007 NY Slip Op 03757 [available here]

Mr. Chiddick bit a man in the finger while attempting a burglary. "The bite caused [the man's] fingernail to crack and his finger to bleed." (Chiddick, 2007 NY Slip Op 03757.) The man testified that the bite caused him "moderate" pain. (Id.) A jury convicted Chiddick of second-degree Assault on the theory that the finger-bite caused "substantial pain." (Id. at __.) The Court of Appeals (in a unanimous decision written by Judge Smith) found the trial evidence sufficient to establish the "substantial pain" required. In doing so, the Court waters down the "substantial pain" standard significantly.

The pain must only be "more than slight or trivial," and "need not . . . be severe or intense to be substantial." (Id. at __.) Great weight was placed on an objective view of the injury. (Id. at __ ["Here, defendant broke Gentle's fingernail and caused him to bleed--an experience that would normally be expected to bring with it more than a little pain."].) Also relevant was the fact that the victim sought medical treatment ("an indication that his pain was significant"). (Id. at __.) The Court even goes so far as to consider the defendant's motive in inflicting the wound. (Id. ["Motive is relevant because an offender more interested in displaying hostility than in inflicting pain will often not inflict much of it."].)

A decision long on speculation, speaking what would "seem" unlikely, what would "normally be expected", etc. Such contortions necessary, it must be noted, because the victim's testimony established only a "moderate" degree of pain, and turning "moderate" into "substantial" takes a fair bit of doing.

Juror not "grossly unqualified" based on acquaintance with complainant

People v Dukes, 2007 NY Slip Op 03758 [available here]

The trial court erred in dismissing a sworn juror over the defendant's objection. "[A] Court may not dismiss a sworn juror unless it has determined that he or she is 'grossly unqualified to serve in the case'--that is, only 'when it becomes obvious that a particular juror possesses a state of mind which would prevent the rendering of an impartial verdict.'" (Dukes, 2007 NY Slip Op 03758.) In Dukes, a juror revealed mid-trial that she knew the complainant, but assured the trial court that she was "100 percent sure" that she could be fair and impartial. The trial court replaced the juror with an alternative anyway, without first determining if she was grossly unqualified to serve. "On this record, the juror's dismissal was improper, and thus defendant is entitled to a new trial. The court failed to determine that juror number three was grossly unqualified--or indeed, unqualified at all." (Id. at __.)

UPDATE: Nicole over at Sui Generis tackles the remaining decision from the Court of Appeals' latest packet (People v Castillo, 2007 NY Slip Op 03795) here.