Case Summaries – Fourth Department Decisions Released on December 23, 2016

Published on January 2, 2017 6:30 pm by Piotr Banasiak in Appeals Blog

Criminal Case Summaries:

  • People v Collins (KA 14-02296) – 4AD reverses D’s conviction of first-degree sexual abuse based on two separate errors. First, the lower court erred in denying a challenge for cause regarding a prospective juror whose son is married to the daughter of the District Attorney of Ontario County, and who has a grandchild in common with the DA. The juror should have been excused because his relationship with the DA was of such a nature that it would likely preclude him from rendering an impartial verdict. Second, the lower court erred in precluding testimony from a defense witness that the victim had said that she did not “think [defendant] did this”. 4AD concludes that defense counsel had laid a sufficient foundation for the admission of this prior inconsistent statement, because the victim denied speaking to the defense witness and stating that the incident might not have happened.
  • People v Ford (KA 13-01619) – 4AD reverses D’s conviction, finding that the lower court should have granted the motion to suppress. D was a passenger in a car police pulled over. Officers directed him out of the car, and when he asked why he was being asked to exit, police removed him and pat frisked him, which resulted in police finding drugs. 4AD concludes that police did not have the requisite reasonable suspicion that D was armed or otherwise posed a danger. Neither D’s nervousness at the approach of police nor the presence of the car in a high-crime area provided the requisite suspicion. 4AD also notes that D’s initial refusal to exit the car and his request to know why he was being asked to do so also did not give rise to reasonable suspicion. The frisk was thus unlawful, and D’s statements and the drugs found on his person should have been suppressed.
  • People v Griffin (KA 14-00997) – 4AD reverses D’s conviction, finding that the lower court erred in denying a challenge for cause to a prospective juror who indicated that she would be partial toward police officers. 4AD explains that although the juror indicated that she would follow the court’s instructions about deciding the case solely based on the evidence presented in court and affirmatively answered a general question about being impartial, that did not provide the required “unequivocal assurance” that she could set aside her bias in favor of police officers.
  • People v Horton (KA 13-01078) – 4AD reverses D’s gun possession conviction based on the cumulative effect of evidentiary errors and prosecutorial misconduct. The defense theory at trial was that the gun was actually the complainant’s, and complainant pulled the gun on D when she refused to participate in an illegal transaction involving a public benefit card. 4AD finds that the lower court erred in precluding cross-examination of the complainant about her history of transactions involving her benefit card and illegal drug use. Such questioning was relevant to show that complainant would have a reason to possess a gun, to show her motive to lie, and as background information. 4AD further finds, in the interest of justice, that D was denied a fair trial by evidence regarding her failure to turn herself in to police, and by the prosecutor’s summation comments regarding that subject. 4AD also finds, again in the interest of justice, that the lower court erred in allowing testimony that D was a “drug dealer”.
  • People v Memon (KA 16-00335) – 4AD reverses D’s conviction for criminal obstruction of breathing and unlawful imprisonment. First, the lower court erred in permitting the prosecutor to cross-examine D about prior bad acts that were similar to D’s alleged conduct in this case. 4AD explains that the CPL requires pre-trial notice of the prosecutor’s intent to cross-examine regarding prior bad acts, and here the prosecutor failed to give such notice. Second, the lower court erred by permitting the prosecutor to bolster the complaining witness’s testimony with the witness’s prior consistent statements.
  • People v Noce (KA 12-01527) – 4AD finds that the lower court erred in denying without a hearing D’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea. During D’s plea colloquy to the charge of assault, it was noted that D had brain surgery a few weeks before the incident. The court asked D if he had discussed the possibility of raising any issues at trial regarding that, and D said “I’m told no.” A sentencing memorandum submitted to the court described the surgery D underwent and the medications he was prescribed thereafter. At sentencing, D was represented by new counsel and moved to withdraw his plea. He asserted that counsel told him a psychiatric defense was unavailable, and submitted an affidavit from his neurosurgeon, which contradicted statements made to D by counsel. Under these circumstances, 4AD finds that the court should have held a hearing, because if D’s allegations were true, then the plea was not knowing, voluntary, and intelligent.
  • People v Paris (KA 15-02133) – 4AD reverses the judgment revoking D’s probation and imposing sentencing because the People failed to establish that D violated a condition of probation. A probation violation cannot be proven solely by hearsay, and here, the only proof that D had violated a condition of probation was the hearsay statement of D’s drug-treatment counselor to his probation officer that D had been unsuccessfully discharged from drug treatment. 4AD thus vacates the declaration of delinquency and reinstates D’s sentence of probation.
  • People v Rodas (KA 16-00854) – In this appeal by the prosecutor, 4AD finds that the lower court properly granted D’s motion to suppress his statements, because D was unlawfully questioned by a CPS worker in violation of his right to counsel. The CPS worker questioned D while he was in jail on an unrelated charge on which he was represented by counsel. 4AD explains that the evidence showed that the CPS worker was acting as an agent of police. The CPS worker consulted with a police officer before and after questioning D, and they also shared information about their respective investigations.
  • People v Streber (KA 13-01654) – 4AD finds that D’s guilty plea was not knowing, voluntary and intelligent because the lower court did not inform D of a direct consequence of the plea. D pled guilty in exchange for a judicial diversion program. At the time of plea, the court stated that D would receive a sentence of 5 years’ probation if he successfully completed the program, but the court did not state the sentence D would receive if he was not successful. Earlier, at D’s arraignment, the court did state the alternative sentence D would receive if he was not successful. The drug-court contract contradicted the offer made on the record, because it provided that D would be sentenced to felony probation if unsuccessful, and did not indicate what would happen if he were unsuccessful. 4AD notes that although the contract was later amended, that was insufficient to validate the plea, because D must be aware of the terms of the plea before it is entered and accepted by the court. 4AD also notes that D was not given an opportunity to withdraw the plea when he re-signed the contract.

Family Law Case Summaries:

  • Matter of Curry v Reese (CAF 14-01924) – In this custody/visitation matter, 4AD affirms the lower court’s order granting sole custody of the subject child to the father. 4AD agrees with the mother that the lower court failed to state for the record that there was a sufficient change in circumstances to warrant a determination of whether the existing custody order should be modified. But, the record is sufficient for 4AD to make its own determination. The record shows that a neglect petition was filed against the mother, and that the court entered a finding of neglect against her based on the conditions in her home. The neglect adjudication constituted a sufficient change in circumstances. 4AD also notes that, under the circumstances, it was in the best interests of the child to be separated from her siblings.
  • Matter of King v King (CAF 15-01118) – In this custody matter, 4AD reverses that part of the lower court’s order that granted custody of the subject children to the father without a hearing. 4AD explains that custody matters must generally be determined only after a full and plenary hearing. If a court grants custody without a hearing, it must clearly articulate the material factors and supporting evidence that it relied on. Here, the court failed to do so, and 4AD thus remits the matter to the lower court for further proceedings.
  • Matter of Jennifer L. v Gerald S. (CAF 15-01025) – In this paternity matter, 4AD reverses the lower court’s order, which vacated an acknowledgment of paternity signed by the non-biological father and the mother. After the non-biological father had custody of the child for over a year following the child’s birth, the mother filed a petition to vacate his acknowledgment of paternity. The mother also filed a paternity petition against the biological father, Shane S. Without giving notice to the non-biological father, the court ordered a paternity marker test, which confirmed Shane S. as the biological father. At the next court appearance, the non-biological father raised the defense of equitable estoppel, but the lower court rejected it after a hearing. 4AD finds this was error, explaining that a family court should consider the doctrine of equitable estoppel before it decides whether to test for biological paternity. The court here erred by failing to give the non-biological father, who acknowledged paternity and had custody of the subject child, notice of the paternity petition. 4AD finds that although the lower court eventually held a hearing, reversal was still required because the court showed little regard for the doctrine of equitable estoppel. 4AD remits the matter for further proceedings before a different judge.
  • Matter of Smith v Stewart (CAF 15-02024) – In this custody matter, 4AD affirms the lower court’s order, which denied the father’s petition for in-person visitation at the prison where the father is incarcerated. Although visitation is generally presumed to be in a child’s best interests, even if a parent is incarcerated, here, the following factors supported the lower court’s order: (1) allegations of domestic violence, (2) the failure of the father to present a plan to accomplish visitation, and (3) the mother’s inability to accomplish visitation due to a lack of a driver’s license or financial resources to provide transportation.
  • Matter of Wolfford v Stephens (CAF 14-01333) – In this custody matter, 4AD reverses the lower court’s order, which continued custody of the subject child with the child’s paternal grandmother. 4AD finds that the lower court failed to make a finding of extraordinary circumstances before considering the best interests of the child. Although an existing order awarded custody to the grandmother, there was no indication in the record that a determination of extraordinary circumstances was previously made, which divested the mother of her superior right to custody. Under these circumstances, the Family Court was required to make a finding of extraordinary circumstances before considering the child’s best interests.