Case Summaries – Fourth Department Decisions Released on November 18, 2016

Published on November 21, 2016 1:46 pm by Piotr Banasiak in Appeals Blog

Criminal Case Summaries:

  • People v Freeman (KA 13-00893) – 4AD finds that the lower court erred in denying D’s motion to suppress tangible evidence and D’s statements. Police stopped D for riding his bike at night without a light. The officer then asked D why he was so nervous and if he was carrying drugs. 4AD finds that although the initial stop was lawful, the officer’s question, which focused on possible criminality, unlawfully escalated the encounter to a level-two common law inquiry. The inquiry was not supported by the requisite founded suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. 4AD notes that D’s nervousness was not sufficient to give rise to a founded suspicion.
  • In contrast to Freeman, compare 4AD’s decision in People v Williams (KA 16-00161), where D was a passenger in a car that police pulled over for a traffic infraction. When police approached, D was acting nervously and patting his pocket. The officer asked D why he was shaking and so nervous. D replied that he possessed marijuana, and a further search by police yielded a gun. 4AD concludes that the officer’s question about D’s nervousness was proper, because it was neither invasive nor focused on possible criminality. According to 4AD, D’s answer to the question “went far beyond what the officer’s words could reasonably expect to evoke”.
  • People v Kuzdzal (KA 15-00027) – 4AD, in a 3 to 2 decision, reverses D’s conviction because the lower court failed to conduct a proper inquiry of two jurors who were overheard making disparaging comments about D. Before deliberations, a friend of D said that she heard two jurors call D a “scumbag”, and heard them laughing and making faces in the back row of the jury box. Defense counsel asked the lower court to conduct an inquiry, and the prosecutor argued that the court should first determine whether it found the allegation credible. The court ruled that an inquiry was not necessary based on what it heard. 4AD finds the court’s conclusory determination that it did not need to conduct an inquiry was error. The lower court’s ruling was not an “implied determination” that the allegations were not credible. 4AD distinguishes People v Matiash (197 AD2d 794), because here, the court did not make a record explaining the reasons for its determination. Because the jurors’ alleged reference to D as a “scumbag” raised the possibility of juror bias, 4AD concludes that an inquiry pursuant to People v Buford was required.
  • The dissent (Smith, J.P., and Peradotto, J.) concludes that an inquiry was not required here because the trial court did not have sufficient credible information that raised the possibility of juror bias. The dissent emphasizes that a trial court should not intrude on the jury and begin asking questions unless there is credible information that a juror made a comment or engaged in behavior that calls into question the juror’s ability to act impartially. Here, D’s friend, when questioned about what she had heard and observed, gave inconsistent testimony about the timing and the nature of the interaction, and also denied being D’s girlfriend, despite previously stating differently. The dissent concludes that the court’s questioning of D’s friend was sufficient, and it properly concluded that an inquiry of the jurors was not required because the allegations lacked credibility.
  • People v Reyes (KA 15-01282) – 4AD, among other things, rejects D’s argument that the aggravated criminal contempt statute (Penal Law § 215.52 [1]) is unconstitutional. 4AD first concludes that, although D argued in his omnibus motion that the statute violated his rights to equal protection, due process, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, the lower court did not rule on those contentions, and so they have been abandoned. 4AD alternatively rejects the arguments on the merits. The statute prohibits both intentional and reckless conduct that causes serious physical injury or physical injury, against a victim in whose favor an order of protection has been issued. Here, the prosecution alleged that D acted recklessly and caused physical injury. 4AD concludes that the Legislature’s decision to encompass both types of conduct in one statute was rationally related to a legitimate governmental interest—i.e., deterring domestic violence. To further that interest, the Legislature rationally concluded that conduct amounting to third-degree assault should be classified as a D felony when committed in violation of an order of protection. At the same time, conduct amounting to second-degree assault was already a D felony, providing for sufficient deterrence, and did not need to be elevated to a more serious degree of crime.

Family Law Case Summaries:

  • Matter of Trinity E. (CAF 15-00376) – In this termination of parental rights matter, 4AD reverses the dispositional order, finding that the lower court should have granted D’s motion for recusal. After the fact-finding hearing, the father made a death threat against the court, among others. He was criminally charged and an order of protection was entered in favor of the court. Thereafter, the father moved for recusal before the dispositional hearing. 4AD finds that the lower court abused its discretion in refusing to recuse itself, particularly in light of the order of protection. 4AD thus remits the case for a new dispositional hearing before a different judge.