Court of Appeals’ November Session: Arguments of Interest for November 17, 2016

The Court of Appeals’ November Session concludes on Thursday, November 17, 2016. Of the cases on the argument schedule, all of which are criminal appeals (the Court’s case summaries can be found here), two are of particular interest:

No. 208           People v James Miller

In Miller, after the victim was shot to death in the Bronx, the defendant was picked up in Charlotte, North Carolina 15 days later and questioned by New York detectives.  During the interrogation, the defendant waived his Miranda rights and made both oral and videotaped statements that the victim had tried to kill him two years earlier and that, on the day of the shooting, the victim approached him enraged with an ice pick in his hands.  The defendant stated that when the victim grabbed him, he pulled out his gun to defend himself, and emptied his gun at the victim as the victim was fleeing.

During jury selection of the defendant’s trial, defense counsel requested to ask the potential jurors if they would be able to disregard a confession if they found it was involuntarily made. Defense counsel was understandably concerned that potential jurors could be seated that could never look beyond the confession if it was shown to have been coerced.  The prosecutor opposed the request, stating that the People were not sure whether they would introduce the statement at trial.  The trial judge denied the request and, relying on the People’s statement, held that it would introduce issues before the jury concerning why a confession was not presented at trial if the People decided against using the statement.

At trial, the People used the defendant’s statements, and defendant testified that the statements were coerced and untrue. He claimed that the detectives repeatedly denied his requests to speak with an attorney before answering questions, slapped him, and threatened to arrest his aunt and girlfriend if he didn’t cooperate.  Defendant was acquitted of second-degree murder, but was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The Appellate Division, First Department affirmed the conviction, and rejected the defendant’s argument that he had been denied a fair trial by prohibiting his counsel from questioning the potential jurors on whether they could disregard a coerced confession. The Court held that the trial judge properly exercised discretion in limiting the scope of voir dire because the People had not yet determined whether they would use the statements at trial, and questioning the jurors would invite them to speculate as to the content of the statements and why they had not been introduced.  Before the Court of Appeals, the defendant argues that the trial judge’s ruling allowed the prosecution to unilaterally limit the scope of the questions that could be asked of potential jurors by claiming that it did not yet know whether it was going to introduce the statements, which violated his constitutional rights.

The Appellate Division, First Department’s decision below can be found here.

No. 209           People v Cristian Morales

Can an involuntary deportation deprive a defendant of his right to appellate review of a criminal conviction? That’s what the Court of Appeals is asked to decide in Morales.  The defendant, a Honduran native, was convicted of misdemeanor DWI and related traffic charges in October 2011.  He appealed his conviction, but then was deported to Honduras in November 2011, not based on the conviction, but for being illegally in the United States after having been previously deported in 2005.  From November 2011 through December 2015, the defendant’s whereabouts were unknown and he did not speak with his appellate counsel.  In April 2015, however, eight months before the defendant got back into contact with his counsel, the counsel filed an appellate brief on the defendant’s appeal in the Appellate Term.  The Nassau County District Attorney moved to dismiss the appeal.

The Appellate Term for the 9th and 10th Judicial Districts granted the motion to dismiss on the ground, among others, that the defendant had been deported and was not in contact with his counsel.  The Court, however, dismissed the appeal without prejudice to a motion to reinstate the appeal should the defendant “return to this court’s jurisdiction.”

Before the Court of Appeals, the defendant argues that his appeal should be reinstated because criminal defendants who have been deported have an absolute right to intermediate appellate review of their convictions, regardless of the basis of their deportations, the issues raised on appeal, or whether they stay in contact with their counsel after deportation. The People counter that the defendant’s conduct in failing to communicate with his counsel for four years after his deportation was tantamount to an abandonment of his appeal, because although his deportation was involuntary, his choice to avoid contact with his attorney was not.

The Appellate Term’s motion decision below can be found here.

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