People v. Christian Williams
AD1 order dated October 30, 2014, reversing judgment of conviction. Decision below: 123 AD3d 240, 995 NYS 2d 559. Tom (AD dissenter), J., granted leave to People January 29, 2015. Argued February 16, 2016.
ISSUE PRESENTED: Whether the Appellate Division correctly held that defendant’s guilty plea was involuntary, where the agreed-upon sentence - - unbeknownst to the parties - - was illegally low. (Assigned counsel for Respondent: Richard M. Greenberg, Office of the Appellate Defender, 11 Park Place, Suite 1601, NYC 10007.)
Issue before the Court: Whether the defendant’s challenge to the voluntariness of his guilty plea due to the imposition of an illegally low sentence required preservation for appellate review.
Held: Citing People v. Louree, 8 N.Y.3d 541 (2007), the Court held that so long as a defendant has an opportunity to object prior to the imposition of sentence, preservation is required in cases, such as this, where the defect in the plea allocution is clear on the face of the record and implicates due process.
In this People’s appeal, the Court did not address the merits of whether an illegally low sentence can invalidate a plea and, instead, reversed on preservation grounds. Distinguishing People v. Louree, 8 N.Y.3d 541 (2007), the Court of Appeals determined that preservation was required, highlighting the limited applicability of the Louree preservation exception. In Louree, the Court excused the defendant’s failure to preserve his Catu claim “because the defendant had no practical ability to assert that the plea was invalid prior to the imposition of the sentence.” Thus, contrary to the First Department’s holding in this case, the Louree exception to the preservation rule could not be invoked simply because a “claim implicated due process.” The defense, however, claimed that there was no practical ability to object to the unlawful sentence where the court did not announce that the sentence was illegally low nor did counsel recognize the unlawfulness of the sentence. Citing the plea and sentencing proceedings as well as other proceedings in between, the Court rejected this argument as there were “multiple opportunities” for the defense to raise the current claim before the final imposition of sentence.
In a dissent joined by Judge Fahey, Judge Rivera argued that as a matter of due process and fundamental fairness, it is unreasonable to require preservation, particularly in this case where all the parties – the judge, prosecutor, and defense counsel – misunderstood the law. Similar to the majority, the dissent also relied upon Louree to reach the opposite conclusion: that because defendant based his decision to plead guilty on the court’s error, he should also be viewed as lacking the opportunity to move to withdraw since mandating preservation would presume that the defense had reason to question the validity of the plea process and the offer. As a matter of public policy, the dissent asserted that requiring preservation would absolve the court of its constitutional duty to ensure that defendant is informed of the direct consequences of his plea (see Louree) and limits defendant’s remedial options. More, the dissent contended that contrary to the majority’s suggestions otherwise, a 440.10 would be improper under the circumstances since, like a Catu-defective plea, the unlawfulness is apparent on the face of the record and, thus, should be raised on direct appeal. Finally, the dissent expressed its concern on the negative impact this will have on plea bargaining; specifically, tougher preservation requirements for pleas even where there is clear error, “undermine[s] public confidence in plea bargains, and discourage[s] defendants from entering these agreements.”
Where the Court of Appeals under Chief Judge Lippman may have maintained a broader interpretation of the rules of preservation, this new Court is adopting a more stringent position. Compare People v. Tyrell, 22 N.Y.3d 359 (2013) with People v. Reynolds, 2016 WL 3147652 (June 7, 2016) (Rivera, J. dissenting). The Court’s decision in this case suggests that the defective plea proceeding itself as well as any court appearances thereafter are “opportunities” to preserve a claim as to the validity of the plea, effectively gutting Louree. Going forward, it is unclear what unlawful plea claims can be raised on direct appeal since they all generally share the same qualities that lead to the same preservation issues presented here: all the parties agree to the terms of the defective plea. More, the Court did not fully explain why an illegally low sentence at a plea proceeding did not present the same, or even more egregious, preservation problems as a Catu error (failure to inform of post-release supervision). As a practical matter, defendants will now have to either request interest of justice consideration for their unpreserved claim on direct appeal and/or file 440.10 motions to challenge the constitutionality of a plea if there was any opportunity to object even where all parties involved were operating under a misapprehension of the law. Of course, the impact of limiting appellate review of these issues is significant as a defendant has no right to counsel when filing a 440.10 motion and has no right to appeal its denial. It will be interesting to see how the law evolves on this issue since the Court now appears to be pulling back. Perhaps this case can be limited on factual grounds, however, that certainly does not seem to be the trend in the Court.