People v. Joseph Bridgeforth

Decided On : 12/22/2016
Issue Before the Court: Is color a separate classification from race for Batson purposes? 
 
Held: Yes.   A movant may meet the Batson prima facie burden by demonstrating that the perempted potential jurors have a similar skin color (for example, dark-colored, as was alleged by the movant in Bridgeforth). 
 
CAL Observes: While the ultimate holding that color provides a basis for a Batson challenge separate from race is doctrinally sound and certainly welcome, the Court’s application here of the “mootness” doctrine in the Batson context is wrong and could prove troublesome for defendants down the road.  Judge Garcia, in concurrence, calls out the majority on this point. 
 
It had seemingly been well-settled by the Court’s prior decision in People v. Hecker, 15 N.Y.3d 625, 652 (2010), that a court will not review whether the Batson movant met its prima facie burden “[o]nce a party has placed its race-neutral reasons on the record,” e.g., once the step 2 protocol is undertaken.  Once that happens, the step one showing “becomes moot.”  Id.
 
The majority, contending that Hecker must be read in conjunction with other authority, held that an ultimate determination on discrimination (a step 3 showing) is required by the trial court before the issue becomes moot.  However, it seems to us that  Hecker’s holding was clear and  served the larger purpose of ensuring that courts could not evade the ultimate question of discrimination.  By reformulating the mootness doctrine, the majority positioned itself to revisit the question it clearly wanted to reach —  whether the defendants alleged a cognizable group based on color —  but at the expense of appellate Batson challenges going forward.   If the Batson protocols are incomplete (as they often are), and left at the step 2 stage, defendants will need to establish to the reviewing court’s satisfaction the threshold issue of whether a prima facie case existed in the first place. 
 
To that end, we urge practitioners to remember the third step: — challenge the prosecution’s race, color, or gender neutral reasons as pretextual by showing (1) that similarly situated jurors who are not in the cognizable group you’ve identified were not challenged. Use the information you’ve culled about prospective jurors from that round or prior rounds; or (2) that the challenged juror would be expected to favor law enforcement (e.g. was a crime victim, has law
enforcement ties, gave prosecution-friendly answers).  And remember that, under Hecker, the strength of your prima facie case can inform your step 3 argument — a strong step 1 showing supports that the prosecutor intentionally discriminated.
 
 
AD2 order dated July 2, 2014, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 119 AD3d 600, 987 NYS2d 869.  Rivera, J., granted leave April 2, 2015.
 
ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) Batson: whether skin-color is a cognizable class. (2) Batson: whether the “mootness doctrine” precludes a trial or appellate judge from revisiting the adequacy of a prima facie showing (step one) when the nonmovant fails to provide a race-neutral reason (step two). (3) The “presumption of regularity” and the right to be present at Sandoval hearings.  (Assigned counsel: Tammy Linn & Lynn W.L. Fahey, Appellate Advocates, 111 John St., 9th Floor, NYC  10038.) 
 

Related Information:
People v Bridgeforth