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New York Appellate Court Reverses Defendant’s Conviction Based on Improper Questioning Regarding Prior Robbery

One of the hallmarks of our criminal justice system that evidence of prior criminal conduct is not permitted to show a persons propensity or tendency to commit crimes.  Except in very limited circumstances evidence of prior criminal conduct is not permitted on the prosecutions direct case.  However, if a defendant chooses to testify the Court is required to hold a pre-trial hearing called a Sandoval hearing to determine in advance what if anything the prosecution can use to cross-examine the defendant about his criminal past.  The purpose of the hearing is to weigh and balance the People’s interest in testing the defendant’s credibility and the defendant’s interest in ensuring that he is not convicted because a jury heard about prejudicial prior criminal conduct.

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York burglary case in which the court was tasked with determining if the defendant was entitled to a new trial when the prosecution brought up the fact that he had previously been convicted of a robbery that was currently in the process of being appealed. Ultimately, the court concluded that the lower court improperly allowed the defendant to be cross-examined regarding the prior robbery, and this error was not harmless. Thus, the court ordered a new trial to be conducted.  As we have reported in the past this is not the first case to be revered for such errors.  Please see our prior blog.

CourtroomThe Facts of the Case

During a trial for burglary, the defendant chose to testify on his own behalf, which is his constitutional right. After the defendant had finished answering the questions posed to him by his own attorney, the prosecution conducted cross-examination.

It was during this cross-examination that the prosecutor asked the defendant about a prior robbery conviction. Normally, evidence of prior criminal acts is not relevant at trial and may not be explored by the prosecution. However, under certain circumstances, convictions for crimes involving dishonesty – such as theft, robbery, etc. – may be the subject of cross-examination.  In addition, one who shows through their past criminal conduct that they are willing to put their interests over those of society’s may be more willing to do so again by lying under oath.

The idea behind allowing questioning about these prior convictions is that by testifying, the defendant puts his own credibility at issue, and a prior crime of dishonesty becomes relevant to the defendant’s honesty. Importantly, such evidence is only admissible if the defendant chooses to testify.

However, in this case, the defendant’s robbery conviction was on appeal to a higher court, and thus it was technically not final. The lower court permitted the prosecution’s questions over a defense objection, and ultimately the defendant was found guilty of burglary.

The defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that the trial court erred in allowing the prosecution to ask him about his prior robbery that was on appeal. The court agreed with the defendant. In fact, the prosecution even agreed that it was an error. However, the prosecution argued that the error was harmless in light of the fact that there was sufficient untainted evidence to convict the defendant of burglary. The court disagreed, finding that the evidence of guilt was not so overwhelming as to say that the error was harmless. Thus, the court reversed the decision of the lower court, reversed the defendant’s conviction, and ordered a new trial.

Have You Been Charged with a Crime in New York?

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