People v. Russell Smith
Issue: Whether a court has the discretion to summarily deny a CPL 330.20 motion without a hearing when defendant alleges that a juror introduced extra-record information into the deliberations.
Held: The court abused its discretion when it denied defendant’s CPL 330.20 motion without a hearing when he alleged that the verdict was tainted by a juror’s report to other deliberating jurors that she had seen defendant commit a crime outside the courthouse.
CAL observes: While neither NYCA’s, nor AD1’s, decisions provide much factual context, the record shows that, days after the jury returned the verdict convicting Mr. Smith of rape, he moved to set aside the verdict. Mr. Smith contended that the verdict was tainted because, on the final morning of deliberations, a juror told her fellow jurors that she’d seen Mr. Smith jump a turnstile and enter the subway system without paying after leaving the courthouse. The trial court dismissed the allegations with little analysis, concluding that the type of misconduct described did “not relate to influences nor information from an outside source.” AD1 affirmed, concluding that the information introduced by the juror was “inconsequential,” and did not require a hearing even assuming the truth of his allegations about the juror’s conduct.
The People argued on appeal to NYCA that no hearing was necessary because the juror did not seek out the extra-record information or intentionally introduce it to influence the jury’s determination, and the alleged misconduct was de minimis, because it was not material to any issue that the jury was expected to resolve.
NYCA’s decision, rejecting the People’s arguments and finding an abuse of discretion,* reflects its judgment that (1) the relevant question is not whether the juror committed some misdeed by conveying the information to the other jurors, but whether the extra-record information could have affected the jurors’ deliberations; and (2) the question of prejudice cannot be resolved without hearing from the jurors.
Together with its decision last term in People v. Lance Williams, –N.Y.3d–, 2020 WL 7390845, NYCA has established a relatively clear rule: a court cannot exercise discretion to review allegations of extra-record information tainting deliberations without hearing from the jurors. But once the court hears from the jurors, the court has wide discretion to assess the impact of the extra-record information. See, Williams, 2020 WL 7390845, at *4 (finding no abuse of discretion where, following a hearing, the trial court denied a 330.30 motion after a hearing into allegations that a juror had been threatened).
*Bonus points to readers who can explain the difference, if any, between a finding that a court “abused its discretion” (see, e.g., Smith; People v. Cook, 34 N.Y.3d 412, 423-24 (2019)(finding trial court’s decision to reopen suppression hearing was not an abuse of discretion)), and one that a court “abused its discretion as a matter of law.” See, e.g., People v. Williams, 35 N.Y.3d 24, 38 (2020)(finding that it was an abuse of discretion as a matter of law to admit DNA evidence without a Frye hearing); People v. Rouse, 34 N.Y.3d 269, 277 (2019)(finding that it was an abuse of discretion as a matter of law to preclude cross-examination of police officer about prior credibility findings).