People v. Damon Wheeler


People v.  Wheeler, 34 N.Y.3d 1134 (2020)

Issue Presented: Whether an accusatory instrument charging obstruction of governmental administration must allege facts demonstrating that the underlying police action was authorized.

Factual Background: Damon Wheeler was convicted of obstructing governmental administration in the second degree for backing his car away from police officers who were attempting to execute a warrant to search the car. Before trial, Mr. Wheeler moved to dismiss the accusatory instrument as facially insufficient because it failed to provide notice of the “official function” with which he had allegedly interfered. The complaint did not reference the search warrant and, instead, stated in a conclusory fashion that Mr. Wheeler intentionally prevented the police from effecting a proper car stop. The trial court denied Mr. Wheeler’s motion to dismiss, and he was ultimately convicted. The Appellate Term affirmed.

Holding: Citing People v. Kalin, 12 N.Y.3d 225, 228 (2009) and its lineage, the court unanimously reversed and dismissed the accusatory instrument, finding it jurisdictionally defective for failure to provide sufficient notice of the official function with which Mr. Wheeler allegedly interfered. Without notice, Mr. Wheeler could not prepare his defense, nor could the demands of due process and double jeopardy be satisfied.

CAL Observes: With its decision in Wheeler, the Court of Appeals brought the Appellate Term in line with prior Appellate Division precedent. See People v. Sumter, 151 A.D.3d 556 (1st Dep’t 2017) (holding that an information is jurisdictionally defective if it fails to allege facts showing that the arrest in question was authorized). Although the Appellate Term acknowledged that its holding in Wheeler was contrary to the standard articulated in Sumter, it declined to explain why, instead emphasizing that it was not bound by Appellate Division precedent. However, as the Court of Appeals reaffirmed, C.P.L. § 100.40(1)(c) clearly requires more than conclusory statements; an information must contain “nonhearsay allegations [that] establish, if true, every element of the offense charged.”