Recent Opinion from Chief Judge Highlights Inadequacies of New York Justice System

In a recent opinion from the New York State Court of Appeals, the chief judge delivered a concurrence that highlights some of the difficulties involved in litigating criminal cases. The opinion centers around an incident in which three pedestrians got into a verbal altercation, after which the defendant stole one of the individual’s phones. The defendant was later convicted of larceny and perjury, and he was sentenced to four to eight years in prison. The judge’s concurrence talks through some of his own frustrations with how the trial court failed to take certain factors into account when sentencing the defendant.

Background of the Case

The opinion describes the incident in question, during which a woman and her boyfriend were walking down the street and almost collided with a bicyclist. The three individuals began yelling at each other in what became a heated conversation. Ultimately, the bicyclist, later named as the defendant in this case, stole the woman’s phone and fled.
The woman called the police, and they were able to quickly find the defendant. He was charged with larceny, and he was called to testify before a grand jury. In connection with that testimony, the defendant was later charged with perjury.

The defendant was later convicted of fourth-degree larceny and two counts of first-degree perjury. The trial court sentenced him to time in prison, which added up to between four and eight years.

The Concurrence

In general, when a court issues an opinion, judges are free to agree with the opinion but still elect to write a separate statement about why they might agree. This is called a “concurrence.” Here, the chief judge chose to write a concurrence about why he thought the trial court perhaps did more harm than it intended during the lower proceedings.

First, said the chief judge, evidence was clear that the defendant had issues with his own mental health. He needed treatment, and he needed community support. Second, the woman whose phone was stolen testified before the court that she regretted calling the police. She admitted that she was partially to blame for the animosity between the individuals.

Given that the defendant needed more support and that the victim did not, in fact, want the defendant to go to prison, the chief judge wrote about how frustrating it was that the defendant still had to serve four to eight years in prison. This incarceration was not beneficial for anyone, said the judge, since it would not address the defendant’s mental health concerns and would not address the victim’s sense of guilt. Overall, the trial court’s decision illustrates the justice system’s inability to consider certain important factors when arriving at important conclusions that affect the course of defendants’ lives.  The Chief Judge expressed frustration with that lack of flexibility that Judges are given under the law to fashion appropriate sentences.

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