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Articles Posted in CRIMINAL APPEALS

Throughout the New York criminal trial process, it is not uncommon for comments or evidence to come into the trial that could prejudice either side. Courts take precautions to instruct attorneys and witnesses not to say certain things, and to avoid particular topics. However, the jury will inevitably be exposed to comments or evidence that it should not have seen or heard. When this happens, it may result in a mistrial. However, courts are reluctant to declare a mistrial unless absolutely necessary and, in many cases, will provide the jury with a “curative instruction” instead.

Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a New York assault case discussing whether a juror’s comments during the trial necessitated a mistrial. Ultimately, the appellate court held that the trial court’s curative instruction was sufficient to cure any prejudice to the defense.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was on trial for second-degree assault. Two other men were also on trial for the same crime. During the trial, in an attempt to goad the complaining witness, one of the defendants’ attorneys repeatedly asked the complaining witness whether he referred to the defendant by a racial slur. The defense attorney used the actual word, rather than self-editing. After repeating the word multiple times, one of the jurors stood up and exclaimed, “Please, I am not going to sit here . . . and have you say that again. Don’t say it again or I’m leaving. . . . I find that very offensive.”

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In a New York criminal jury trial, the judge has several critical roles. In general terms, the judge determines the “rules” by which the trial will be conducted. For example, the judge will resolve all pretrial motions, manages the jury selection process, rules on objections during the trial, and instructs the jury at the conclusion of the trial. One of the most essential roles of a judge is also to act as the gatekeeper, meaning the judge will determine which evidence will be presented to the jury.

Not surprisingly, a judge’s rulings on these issues can drastically affect the outcome of a trial. And because judges are human, they are prone to making errors. In fact, that is the very purpose of the New York appellate process; to review the trial court’s legal decisions which led to a conviction. Thus, when a party believes that a judge made an error at trial, that party must object. When a party objects to a ruling, they must state the basis for the objection. Typically, when an objection is made, the judge will hear argument on the objection outside the presence of the jury and issue a ruling. It is up to the party making the objection to make sure the judge knows the basis of the objection and is aware of the legal support behind the objection.  AS a general principle the Judge must be given an opportunity to fix the error in order to preserve your right to appeal on an issue.

When an appellate court grants review of a case, it will typically consider all arguments raised in the defendant’s brief. However, an appellate court may apply various standards when reviewing an error. For issues that were properly raised at trial, an appellate court uses what is called “de novo” review, meaning that the court will not give the lower court’s decision any deference.

Earlier this month, a state appellate court issued a written opinion in a New York manslaughter case discussing whether the evidence presented by the prosecution was legally sufficient to sustain the defendant’s conviction for manslaughter. Ultimately, the court concluded that the jury’s decision to convict the defendant, given the evidence, was proper. Thus, the court affirmed the conviction.

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was a board-certified doctor in anesthesiology and pain management. The defendant operated a practice in Queens, which the prosecution characterized as a “pill mill” in which the defendant would see patients complaining of pain and prescribe medication without verifying the source of the pain or ordering any diagnostic tests. The defendant only accepted cash and charged extra for higher doses of opioid medication.

Two of the defendant’s patients died while overseas, from a combination of oxycodone and alprazolam. Both men filled prescriptions, written by the defendant, for these medications shortly before their death. Pills containing both medications were found on the men’s bodies after their death.

In a New York criminal trial, after both parties present their evidence, the judge will instruct the jury on the applicable law. The court’s jury instructions, or jury charge as it is also known, is an essential part of the trial because it frames how the jury will view the case and what questions the jurors must answer. Like other phases of the trial, each side can present proposed jury instructions to the court in hopes of obtaining a favorable instruction.

One of the most important jury instructions in a New York violent crime case is a missing evidence instruction. Missing evidence instructions can be based on physical evidence or witness testimony. A missing witness instruction is when the court explains to the jury that it can “draw an unfavorable inference based on a party’s failure to call a witness who would normally be expected to support that party’s version of events.” A recent case illustrates the importance of a missing witness instruction.

According to the court’s opinion, the victim was walking with her boyfriend as the defendant approached them from behind. As the defendant neared the couple, the victim’s boyfriend saw that the defendant had a gun and pushed the victim out of the way. The victim fell to the ground, and looked up at the defendant as he shot her. The victim was later found by police and identified the defendant.

In New York, Burglary is a serious felony.  The facts of the Burglary will determine whether there is a mandatory minimum state prison sentence associated with a conviction and how long that state prison sentence will be. In April of 2019, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on an important case discussing the “intent” element of the crime of burglary. While the case arose in Michigan, the case raises an important issue that could come up in a New York burglary case.

Historically, burglary has been defined as an unlawful entry at night into a building owned by another, with the intent to commit a crime therein. Over the years, lawmakers have refined the definition of burglary. For example, nearly all states have eliminated the requirement that the alleged acts occur in the evening hours. Additionally, many states have added language into the burglary statute allowing the crime to be proven by showing that the defendant “unlawfully remained” on the property with the intent to commit a crime.

The exact nature in which the case arose is complex; however, the Court was asked to determine whether Michigan’s “home invasion” statute satisfied the elements of a “burglary” for the purposes of the Armed Career Criminals Act. Michigan defined a home invasion as “breaking and entering a dwelling and while entering or present in the dwelling, committing a misdemeanor.”

In May 2019, in a New York robbery case, a state appellate court issued a written opinion discussing an important issue that may arise in any case in which there is more than one person named as a defendant. Specifically, the case required the court to determine if the defendant was deprived of a fair trial when the court allowed a codefendant to testify against the defendant after the codefendant negotiated a deal directly with the trial judge. Ultimately, the court found in favor of the defendant, ordering a new trial.

According to the court’s opinion, both the defendant and codefendant were arrested and charged with first-degree robbery. While some of the crime was captured on video, the faces of the robbers were not visible. Before trial, the codefendant entered an open guilty plea to each charge. The court informed the codefendant that the range of his sentence would be between nine and 15 years, and that the codefendant’s specific sentence would depend on the “level of cooperation in the prosecution” against the defendant. The court explained that “one of the primary touchstones” of its determination would be whether the codefendant’s testimony at trial was consistent with his statements to police in which he identified the defendant.

At trial, the codefendant testified that he was one of the people who committed the robbery and the defendant was also involved. The codefendant identified the defendant as the other person who committed the robbery on the surveillance footage. The prosecution questioned the codefendant, eliciting testimony that there was no deal between the prosecution and the codefendant. The court later informed the jury that the court had entered into an agreement with the codefendant. The jury convicted the defendant, and the defendant appealed.

As Second Amendment attorney Peter H. Tilem reported in a blog on April 24, 2016, New York and New Jersey’s outright ban on stun guns and tasers were unconstitutional.  stungunNow today, a Federal District Judge in upstate New York confirmed that opinion and enjoined the New York State Police from enforcing New York Penal Law sec 265.01 (1) as it applies to “Electronic Dart Guns” and “Electronic Stun Guns.”  The case entitled Avitabile v. Beach was decided earlier today by US District Judge David N. Hurd of the United States District Court for the Northern District in New York.  While the case is not necessarily binding in New York City, the case applies the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Caetano v. Massachusetts, which struck down the Massachusetts state ban on stun guns.

The issue actually began with the famous Second Amendment Case of Heller which was decided in 2008.  In knocking out a ban on handguns in Washington DC, the US Supreme Court in Heller ruled that the Second Amendment applied to “bearable” arms.  The Caetano decision, in knocking down a stun gun conviction in Massachusetts, made it very clear that a stun gun was a bearable arm as that term was used in Heller.

Besides being illegal, bans on stun guns and tasers are inherently illogical.  All states permit the possession of handguns to a degree.  Even New Jersey and New York City which effectively ban the possession of handguns outside the home, permit handgun possession in the home, with the appropriate license (in New York).  However, prior to today’s ruling, New York and New Jersey have a complete and total ban on the civilian possession of stun guns and tasers which are non-lethal.  This complete and total ban includes both possession inside the home and outside the home and does not even permit possession with a license.

In order to convict someone of a crime in New York, the prosecution must establish each element of the offense. Under New York law, a burglary occurs when a person “knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in a building with intent to commit a crime therein. Thus, in the case of a New York burglary charge, the prosecution must establish that the defendant 1.) knowingly entered or unlawfully remained 2.) in a building 3.) with the intent to commit a crime therein.

If the prosecution is unable to establish each of the elements beyond a reasonable doubt, then a defendant cannot be convicted of that offense. However, prosecutors typically charge multiple similar crimes, so if they are cannot convict a defendant of the lead charge they will still attempt to convict on a lesser charge. A recent state appellate decision illustrates this concept in the context of a burglary charge.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant allegedly assaulted a 14-year old girl and, as he was fleeing from the police, entered a person’s home without permission. While he was inside the house, the defendant allegedly stole several articles of clothing.

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When courts determine a defendant’s sentence, one of the factors they consider is the defendant’s prior record. Typically, the more convictions a defendant has on their record, the harsher the penalty they can expect to receive.

New York lawmakers have prescribed an escalating punishment scheme for “second felony offenders.” Under New York Consolidated Laws § 70.06, a second felony offender is someone who has recently been convicted of a qualifying offense and has a qualifying predicate offense. The punishments for second felony offenders are mandatory, meaning a judge cannot exercise her discretion to impose a more lenient sentence, and are significantly increased over those for first-time felony offenders. A proficient New York criminal appeals attorney can break everything down further regarding the details of your specific case once you reach out to them.

When it comes to determining whether a previous conviction is a qualifying predicate offense, courts look both to the date of the sentence as well as the type of crime. In a recent case, a New York appellate court clarified that it the original date of sentencing that courts should look to when determining if someone qualifies as a second felony offender.

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Self defense cases in New York can be particularly challenging and require a skilled and experienced attorney.  In New York self defense is referred to the defense of justification.  Recently, a state appellate court issued an opinion in a New York assault case discussing the defense of justification. Ultimately, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction for assault in the first degree and ordered a new trial based on the trial court’s failure to instruct the jury appropriately.

The Facts of the Case

According to the court’s opinion, the defendant was arrested and charged with attempted murder and several assault charges after he “slashed his roommate across the neck and stabbed him in the abdomen with a large kitchen knife.” Apparently, the alleged assault occurred in the men’s apartment during a physical altercation.

Evidently, the defendant presented evidence suggesting that he was justified in his actions. It is unclear from the court’s opinion the exact nature of the justification defense, but it was most likely self-defense. At the conclusion of the evidence, the court instructed the jury on each of the charged offenses, as well as the defendant’s justification defense.

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