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PEOPLE STATE NEW YORK v. DONALD WILLIAMS (04/09/69)

COURT OF APPEALS OF NEW YORK 1969.NY.41055 <http://www.versuslaw.com>; 248 N.E.2d 8; 24 N.Y.2d 274 decided: April 9, 1969. THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, RESPONDENT,v.DONALD WILLIAMS, APPELLANT; THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, RESPONDENT, V. ALBERT BALASSY, APPELLANT; THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, RESPONDENT, V. JAMES FOWLKES, APPELLANT People v. Balassy, 30 A.D.2d 640, modified. People v. Fowlkes, 30 A.D.2d 658, reversed. Counsel Carol Berkman and Anthony F. Marra for appellant in the first above-entitled action. Eugene Gold, District Attorney of Kings County (Harry Brodbar of counsel), for respondent in the first above-entitled action. Counsel Myron J. Meadow for appellant in the second above-entitled action. Counsel Burton B. Roberts, District Attorney of Bronx County (Robert Cantor and Daniel J. Sullivan of counsel), for respondent in the second above-entitled action. Counsel Julia P. Heit and Anthony F. Marra for appellant in the third above-entitled action. Counsel Burton B. Roberts, District Attorney of Bronx County (Kevin P. Gilleece and Daniel J. Sullivan of counsel), for respondent in the third above-entitled action. Breitel, J. Chief Judge Fuld and Judges Burke, Scileppi, Bergan, Keating and Jasen concur. Author: Breitel


People v. Balassy, Breitel, J. Chief Judge Fuld and Judges Burke, Scileppi, Bergan, Keating and Jasen concur.

Author: Breitel

 These are separate cases raising questions of the original jurisdiction of the Family Court under the new constitutional provision and implementing statute, effective September 1, 1962 (N. Y. Const., art. VI, § 13; Family Ct. Act, § 812). Under these provisions the Family Court is given "exclusive original jurisdiction * * * over any proceeding concerning acts which would constitute disorderly conduct or an assault between spouses or between parent and child or between members of the same family or household" (id.).

The purpose of these enactments was to remove in the first instance from the criminal courts a limited class of offenses arising in the family milieu, in order to permit a more ameliorative and mediative role by the Family Court. It was recognized that many family confrontations, although technically taking the character of a criminal offense, are lacking in the elements, public or private, that justify the use of criminal procedures and sanctions. In order, therefore, to provide an opportunity to reach and treat the roots of family discord, without separate and inconsistent procedures in different courts, the design was to bring such matters, in the first instance, to the Family Court. If criminal complaints are filed in the criminal courts, they must be transferred to Family Court for disposition (Family Ct. Act, § 813). The Family Court need not, however, retain this first instance jurisdiction. In a proper case, if it finds the matter inappropriate for its methods and facilities, the Family Court may transfer the matter to the applicable criminal court of jurisdiction (§ 816).

A critical element in the jurisdictional provisions is that the criminal offense charged be either disorderly conduct or an assault, without regard to the degree or rank of the latter offense. Another critical element is that the offending conduct arise between spouses, between parent and child, or between members of the same family or household. As will be seen, the denotations of these classes are not precisely determined by the language used.

The Williams Case

Williams was convicted of assault in the third degree, a misdemeanor, in the Criminal Court of the City of New York on June 8, 1967, and sentenced to a term of six months in the city penitentiary. The prison term has been completed. The Appellate Term unanimously affirmed.

Williams' sole contention on appeal is that the proceeding should have been transferred to the Family Court, on the ground that the complainant, the victim of the assault, Frederick Lewis, was Williams' uncle, and that the dispute arose out of the uncle's attempts to evict Williams from a house owned by the uncle and occupied by 30-year-old Williams, his mother and his grandparents. His uncle does not reside in the house. At the arraignment, the uncle testified that the grandparents were afraid of their grandson and had asked for the uncle's assistance. He further asserted that the nephew needed "medical care", paid no rent, and had verbally abused him. On a commitment for mental observation, Williams was found legally sane.

At the trial, the uncle testified that Williams had refused to leave the house and had drawn a knife, "made a reach" for his uncle, and followed him downstairs when the uncle withdrew. The uncle called the police, and Williams put the knife away before the police arrived. When the police arrived and asked the uncle what he wanted done, the uncle replied that he "wanted him [Williams] arrested, that it was the only way to settle the thing without somebody dying over it."

Williams denied that he had threatened his uncle with a knife. He testified that he refused to have anything to do with his uncle and paid rent to his grandparents, adding that there was a misunderstanding in the family as to whom the rent was due.

Williams contends that this was a family argument, and that the assault charge on which he was convicted should have been transferred to the Family Court.

This case, and the Balassy matter (infra) appear to be the first cases in this court involving a construction of the "family" jurisdiction of the Family Court. (The question has arisen elsewhere and there is disagreement in the lower courts as to whether a couple living together as husband and wife, although unmarried, qualify as members of the same family or household [compare, e.g., Matter of Best v. Macklin, 46 Misc. 2d 622, with People v. James, 55 Misc. 2d 953, and People v. Johnson, 48 Misc. 2d 536].) The background for the Family Court's newly acquired "family jurisdiction" was the recognition that many criminal prosecutions were pressed by complainants who were not necessarily concerned with the public aspect of the crimes perpetrated, but instead were using the charges as a means, often inadequate, to improve or otherwise alter their family relationships. Thus it was found that cases of criminal charges brought by wives fell into three discernible patterns:

(1) Wives who lodge complaints to compel their husbands to leave home and to obtain protection, support, and custody of the children;

(2) Wives, normally married less than five years, who treat the assault or disorderly conduct as a sign of troubled marriage and who use the courts to seek resolution of the difficulty and effect conciliation; and

(3) Wives, usually married more than five years, and willing to settle for a less than an ideal marriage, who seek to use the proceeding only to get their husbands to stop beating them or to stop drinking heavily. (See Report No. II of Joint Legislative Committee on ...


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