People v. Anonymous


People v. Anonymous, decided February 18, 2020 

Facts: After the defendant pleaded guilty with the promise of a four-year sentence on the condition that he not get arrested and stay out of trouble, he was arrested for robbery. He went to trial on that case before being sentenced on the plea case.  At that trial, he denied  the robbery but admitted to engaging in drug activity during the post-plea period.  He was acquitted of the robbery charges.  Back before the plea court, the court granted the prosecution’s application, over defense objection, to unseal the record of the robbery case to establish that the defendant violated the court’s pre-sentence condition.  Using the defendant’s testimony about drug trafficking to find the violation, the court sentenced the defendant to eight years, instead of four.   

Issue before the Court: (1) Did the unsealing and use of the defendant’s trial testimony violate CPL § 160.50, the statute governing sealing (the Appellate Division determined the unsealing violated the sealing statute) and (2) if so, must the case be remitted for resentencing (the Appellate Division determined it did not). 

Held: Yes and Yes. In a 4-3 decision written by Judge Rivera, and joined by Judges Wilson, Stein, and Fahey, the Court held that the unsealing was improper.  None of the six delineated exceptions in the statute allowed the prosecutor to obtain unsealing to establish that the defendant had violated a pre-sentence plea condition. The Court’s prior decision in Matter of Katherine B. v. Cataldo,  5 N.Y.3d 196 (2005), which had rejected unsealing for the purpose of making a sentencing recommendation, controlled.  The Court further held, contrary to the Appellate Division,  that remittal for a new sentencing proceeding was required, because the court’s wrongful  consideration of the defendant’s testimony affected the sentence.  At that resentencing, the prosecution could present evidence not obtained from the sealed record to establish the pre-sentence violation.  Judges DiFiore, Garcia, and Feinman dissented, interpreting the statute and Katherine B. to allow unsealing here, and expressing consternation that a court cannot consider wrongdoing the defendant admits under oath. 

CAL Observes: In addition to being a win for the defense, a nice review here of the purposes of sealing, the statute’s construction, and the law in this area.  

The case fractured along the usual fault lines where the defense prevails, here with respect to statutory interpretation and the availability of acquitted conduct in subsequent proceedings.  On that note, the case contrasts with  People v. Britton, 31 N.Y.3d 1019 (2018), which, over Judge Rivera’s lone dissent, allowed the underlying facts of acquitted charges to be used against the defendant at a SORA risk assessment hearing.  Even there, Judge Rivera dissented only because she did not believe that the charges had been proved by clear and convincing evidence.  That the defense marshaled four votes in Anonymous suggests that the existence and purpose of the sealing statute, more than the fact the defendant had been acquitted, was critical to the outcome. Food for thought when crafting a leave letter in a case with a statutory component. 

One collateral takeaway: if the defendant is not sentenced in accordance with law, this case supports that a new sentencing proceeding is required, even if the same sentence will be imposed - potentially useful to rebut DA claims of futility and waste of resources.