People v. Carl D. Wells


AD1 order dated May 24, 2012, affirming of judgment of conviction. Decision below: 95 AD3d 696; 944 NYS2d 560. Graffeo, J., granted leave October 5, 2012.

ISSUE PRESENTED: Whether the Appellate Division, after determining that the defendant’s motion to suppress evidence recovered from an improper car search, nonetheless properly upheld the guilty-plea conviction, refusing to apply the general rule that harmless error does not apply in guilty plea cases. (Assigned counsel: Steven Banks, Legal Aid Society, Criminal Appeal Bureau, 199 Water Street, NYC 10038.)

Issue before the Court: Whether, under the facts of this case, the harmless error doctrine could be used to uphold a guilty plea that entered after the improper denial of a suppression motion.

Held: Reversing the First Department, the Court held the harmless error doctrine inapplicable to this case.

CAL Observes: The Court has previously held that convictions based upon invalid guilty pleas, as in this case, are generally not amenable to harmless error analysis. People v. Grant, 45NY2d 366 [1978] (guilty plea after improper suppression ruling may be upheld if there is "no reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the plea"). The First Department had upheld the plea in light of independent and overwhelming proof of guilt. The Court of Appeals disagreed with the First Department’s approach: The record indicated that the defendant’s decision to plead was directly influenced by the loss at the hearing; it did not matter that, from a purely objective point of view, the remaining evidence was so strong that it should not have affected the defendant’s decision to plead guilty.