Eye on Eagle

People ex rel Molinaro v Warden, Rikers Island


People ex rel. Molinaro v. Warden, Rikers Island (decided December 15, 2022)

BACKGROUND: Under C.P.L. § 730.20(2), when a defendant is ineligible for pretrial custody, has been ROR’d, or has been released on bail, “the court may direct that [a competency] examination be conducted on an out-patient basis, and at such time and place as the director shall designate. If, however, the director informs the court that hospital confinement of the defendant is necessary for an effective examination, the court may direct that the defendant be confined in a hospital designated by the director until the examination is completed.”

The question presented in this habeas corpus appeal was whether a court may, when ordering a competency evaluation, formally remand a defendant to pretrial custody solely because a competency evaluation has been ordered.

HOLDING: No, the statute says otherwise. As the Court unanimously explained, “[W]hen a defendant is not in custody, a court only has the authority to either order a competency examination on an out-patient basis or to direct that the defendant be confined in a hospital pending completion of the examination upon proper medical recommendation that such confinement is necessary. The court may not remand a defendant into custody solely because an examination has been ordered.”

CAL OBSERVES: The statutory construction issue here was rather straightforward, hinging on the clear text of the statute and legislative history. But there are still a few important components of the opinion that practitioners should pay attention to for future cases.
Mootness. The Court held that, although petitioner had been released from custody, thus mooting the case, the capable-of-repetition exception to the mootness rule applied. In so holding, the Court confirmed that the evading-review exception focuses on whether the issue will tend to evade appellate review. This is important because it expands the scope of the exception. After all, appellate review (unlike mere trial-level review) can often take several years.

Legislative Inaction. Although the court did not go so far as to find legislative inaction categorically irrelevant, it did reject the theory that, since some lower courts had adopted a contrary reading of C.P.L. § 730.20(2), the Legislature could be deemed to have implicitly adopted that reading by failing to legislate against it (see fn. 4). In doing so, the Court noted that the Court of Appeals had never resolved the issue, only trial-level courts had, so there was never an authoritative interpretation for the Legislature to implicitly adopt anyway.

The Gold Standard of Legislative History. When the Legislature enacted the modern Penal Law and C.P.L. in 1970, it commissioned the “Bartlett Commission” to craft the new law. In doing so, the Commission created a detailed analysis of the modern C.P.L. and Penal Law. As the Court of Appeals often does, it relied on that legislative history here. The lesson for practitioners is clear: if you are researching a question of statutory construction, research the legislative history. And if your case involves a provision that was enacted as part of the comprehensive enactment of the modern C.P.L./Penal Law, go to Bartlett.