The People v. Saylor Suazo
Issue before the Court: Whether a noncitizen defendant who demonstrates that a charged crime carries the potential penalty of deportation is entitled to a jury trial even if the potential incarceratory sentence is less than six months, the presumptive dividing line between serious and petty offenses under the Sixth Amendment.
Held: Defendant was entitled to a jury trial, even though the crimes for which he was charged, class-B misdemeanors, carried a maximum Penal Law sentence of three months’ incarceration, because the potential consequence to defendant should he be convicted—deportation—made them serious within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment.
CAL observes: New York City defendants, unlike those in the rest of the State, are not statutorily entitled to jury trials if they are charged with nothing more serious than class-B misdemeanors. CPL 340.40(1). The Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial does not automatically attach to those charged with class-B misdemeanors, because the maximum Penal Law sentence is three months’ incarceration. The presumptive threshold for a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment is six months’ imprisonment. Under the Sixth Amendment, then, NY City defendants facing class-B misdemeanors are not ordinarily entitled to jury trials.
NYC prosecutors routinely exploit this option, reducing class-A misdemeanor charges to class-Bs on the eve of trial, thereby depriving defendants of jury trials, a practice that has been approved by the New York Court of Appeals. See People v. Urbaez, 10 N.Y.3d 773 (2008).
In Suazo, the Court recognized that, at least for a noncitizen defendant, the three-month-maximum jail sentence might be the least of defendant’s worries, as many class-B convictions carry the drastic non-penal consequences, including deportation.
Further litigation of the issue is likely to focus on, among other things, the showing a noncitizen must make to invoke Suazo’s jury trial right. In the opening sentence of her majority opinion, Judge Stein stated the rule broadly, requiring defendant to show only the possibility of deportation, not that it would be certain, or even likely, should defendant be convicted: “Today, as a matter of first impression, we hold that a noncitizen defendant who demonstrates that a charged crime carries the potential penalty of deportation—i.e. removal from the country—is entitled to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment” (italics added). The decision does not require that defendant show s/he will be deported, only that a charged crime carries the potential for deportation. Judge Stein later noted that a noncitizen “may be deported, or forcibly removed from the country, if convicted of a variety of crimes, including a ‘crime of moral turpitude’ under certain conditions, an ‘aggravated felony,’ most controlled substance offenses, various firearm offenses, ‘[c]rimes of domestic violence, stalking, or violation of [a] protection order, [and] crimes against children’” Although Mr. Suazo showed that at least one of the charges he faced was classified as a “deportable” offense, that was not a requirement for a jury trial; defendant need only show that a conviction might lead to deportation.