People v. DeBellis


Question Presented: Mr. Debellis testified at trial that, when he was pulled over
by the police, he was on his way to surrender a firearm (recovered from the car) to
the police. He further testified that he had owned that firearm for several years. Was
counsel ineffective in failing to request an applicable voluntary-surrender instruction
under Penal Law 265.20(a)(1)(f), and instead requesting a baseless—and ultimately
rejected—temporary-and-lawful possession instruction?

Holding: The Court held 4-3 that counsel was ineffective. No reasonable lawyer, the
Court found, goes all in on a baseless defense at the expense of the only applicable
defense, ultimately conceding guilt before the jury with no defense at all. As counsel’s
error deprived Mr. Debellis of a fair trial, counsel was ineffective under the State
Constitution, which is “more protective than the Federal standard because even in
the absence of a reasonable probability of a different outcome, inadequacy of counsel
will still warrant reversal whenever a defendant is deprived of a fair trial.” (quotation
marks omitted).

CAL Observes: The Court’s IAC analysis and analysis of the voluntary-surrender
statute are both important.

As for the IAC analysis, the Court confirmed that an important error going to the
heart of the defense is IAC under the state constitution regardless of actual prejudice.
While the jury “had every right not to credit Mr. Debellis’s testimony” that he was in
the process of surrendering the firearm (since “other trial” evidence may have
“contradicted” that testimony), that did not defeat his IAC claim on prejudice
grounds. The “important distinction” between the state and federal standard, the
Court held, is that even where a defendant may have “difficulty showing prejudice
under the Federal standard,” he is still entitled to relief under the State Constitution
if the error deprived him of a fair trial or meaningful representation. As counsel’s
error here led to the jury receiving an admission to possession without an instruction
on the only applicable defense, the state standard was satisfied.

The Court also discussed the boundaries of the voluntary-surrender defense. The
statutory defense “applies to a person voluntarily surrendering a weapon to the police
. . . in accordance with the terms and conditions established by the [police]. The
purpose of this defense is to encourage persons with illegal firearms to turn them in—
regardless of how long the person has had them—so as to enhance public safety by
reducing the number of illegal weapons in circulation. Unlike the temporary and
lawful possession defense, the voluntary surrender defense contains no time limit on
possession of the illegal firearm. That difference was crucial to Mr. Debellis, who
testified that he possessed the weapon unlawfully for over a year before deciding to
surrender it voluntarily.”

Nor is there, the Court confirmed, any requirement that the individual announce to
the police that he is in the process of surrendering a firearm (a risky proposition for
obvious reasons). That omission may bear on the credibility of the defendant’s
testimony that he was in the process of surrendering the firearm, but it does not
categorically nullify the statutory defense.

The Court’s decision here has led to the adoption of a new pattern instruction too:

Under our law, a person is immune from prosecution,
meaning that person may not be found guilty of criminal
possession of [a weapon] if that person voluntarily
surrenders [a weapon] to [the NYPD]. A person who
possesses [the weapon] and in good faith intends to
surrender it to a law enforcement official or department
authorized by law to receive it and to do so in accordance
with the terms and conditions as may be established by
that official or department, but, while in the immediate
process of attempting to do so, is arrested for possession .
. . may not be found guilty of [unlawful possession].