The highest state court in New York recently issued an opinion discussing whether the prosecution can offer evidence of a defendant’s prior drug sale conviction in their direct case in instances in which the defendant is asserting an agency-based defense that is supported entirely by parts of the prosecution’s case-in-chief.
The facts of the case are as follows. In 2010, a number of undercover police personnel were engaged in a so-called buy-and-bust operation in Manhattan. The officers observed the defendant, along with another person, walking for roughly 40 minutes. Shortly thereafter, one of the officers reported seeing the other individual provide the defendant with money, after which the defendant walked across the street and into a residential apartment complex. A few minutes later, the defendant returned to his companion outside the building and provided him with certain items. Later, these items were identified as envelopes of heroin.
The police initiated a stop of the defendant and his companion. The officers discovered a sum of money in the defendant’s pocket and the narcotics in his companion’s pocket.
The matter proceeded to trial, and a jury was selected. During the trial, the defendant did not offer any defense witnesses, and the defendant did not testify. The defendant’s attorney then notified the court and the prosecution that the defendant may present an agency defense. Under New York law, this defense states that if you are part of an illegal drug transaction, you cannot be convicted of selling drugs if you were merely acting as an agent of the drug purchaser, or someone who was merely assisting the purchaser with buying the narcotics. This defense does not absolve you of all criminal liability because you can still be charged with possession of illegal drugs, or even criminal facilitation.
At the close of the prosecution’s case but before the prosecution rested, the defendant again indicated his intent to assert an agency defense. He argued, however, that the prosecution should be prohibited from introducing evidence regarding prior drug sale convictions because the defendant intended to rely solely on evidence presented during the prosecution’s case to support this defense. If the defendant took the stand and testified, the prosecution could be authorized to use evidence of any of the defendant’s prior questions to impeach the defendant’s character and truthfulness. The court ruled that if the defendant intended to assert this defense, the prosecution would be allowed to provide evidence regarding the defendant’s prior drug sale conviction. The defendant proceeded, and the defendant was ultimately convicted of a criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree.
On appeal, the intermediate court upheld the lower court’s decision regarding the agency defense and admissibility of the prior conviction. The defendant appealed, again, arguing that the conviction was not admissible because the defendant relied solely on inferences drawn from the prosecution’s case-in-chief to support his assertion of the agency defense.
Ultimately, the high court concluded that, while evidence of prior convictions to impeach a defendant’s character is typically only admitted when the defendant takes the stand, in this instance, a trial court has the discretion to allow evidence regarding the previous drug sale conviction when proving that the defendant had the intent to sell narcotics.
At Tilem & Associates, our dedicated and seasoned team of New York criminal defense attorneys has assisted numerous individuals with protecting their rights during a drug-related investigation or criminal charge. As a result, we understand how drug offense cases can be stressful for you and your family. To schedule your free consultation to learn more about your legal options and how we may be able to assist you, call us now at 877-377-8666 or contact us online to get started.