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People v. Wells

Court of Appeals of New York

November 14, 2013

The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent,
Carl D. WELLS, Appellant.

[977 N.Y.S.2d 713] Steven Banks, Legal Aid Society, Criminal Appeals Bureau, New York City (Harold V. Ferguson, Jr., of counsel), for appellant.

Robert T. Johnson, District Attorney, Bronx (Orrie A. Levy, Megan R. Roberts, Joseph N. Ferdenzi and Nancy Killian of counsel), for respondent.

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[999 N.E.2d 1158] People v. Grant, 45 N.Y.2d 366, 408 N.Y.S.2d 429, 380 N.E.2d 257 (1978) established that the harmless error doctrine generally cannot be used to uphold a

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guilty plea that is entered after the improper denial of a suppression motion. People v. Lloyd, 66 N.Y.2d 964, 498 N.Y.S.2d 785, 489 N.E.2d 754 (1985), however, recognized that there are exceptions to this principle. In this case, the Appellate Division determined that defendant's challenge to an inventory search should have been granted but his guilty plea nonetheless was valid under Lloyd. Based on our review of the record and relevant precedent, we disagree and hold that Grant controls in this context.

Defendant crashed a stolen car and the police found him asleep in the driver's seat. He was visibly inebriated, smelled of alcohol when he exited the vehicle and was arrested for driving while intoxicated. Defendant subsequently failed physical coordination tests and his blood alcohol content was .09%. A crack pipe and an open bottle of rum were found during a search of the automobile. After waiving his Miranda rights, defendant admitted that he had been drinking alcohol " non-stop for days" and smoking cocaine during that time as well.

Defendant moved to suppress the evidence found inside the car, arguing that it was obtained by police during an invalid inventory search. Following an evidentiary hearing, Supreme Court determined that the search was proper and denied the suppression motion. Defendant then informed the court that he wanted to plead guilty to driving while ability impaired because he " was not planning on going to trial if I got a negative ruling" on the motion and " didn't want to waste the taxpayer's dollars." Supreme Court accepted defendant's guilty plea and imposed the agreed-upon sentence.

The Appellate Division affirmed, concluding that the inventory search was improper but that the erroneous denial of the motion to suppress was harmless due to independent and overwhelming proof of defendant's guilt ( 95 A.D.3d 696, 944 N.Y.S.2d 560 [1st Dept.2012] ). A Judge of this Court granted leave to appeal (19 N.Y.3d 1106, 955 N.Y.S.2d 561, 979 N.E.2d 822 [2012] ) and we now reverse.

The harmless error rule was " formulated to review trial verdicts" ( People v. Grant, 45 N.Y.2d at 378, 408 N.Y.S.2d 429, 380 N.E.2d 257). It requires an appellate court to assess the quantum and nature of the People's proof of guilt independent of erroneously admitted [977 N.Y.S.2d 714] [999 N.E.2d 1159] evidence and the causal effect, if any, that the introduction of that evidence had on the factfinder's verdict ( see People v. Crimmins, 36 N.Y.2d 230, 240, 367 N.Y.S.2d 213, 326 N.E.2d 787 [1975] ). Harmless error therefore can be " difficult to apply to guilty pleas" — especially in cases involving " an improper denial of a pretrial motion to suppress" — since " a defendant's decision to plead guilty may be based on any factor

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inside or outside the record" ( People v. Grant, 45 N.Y.2d at 378-379, 408 N.Y.S.2d 429, 380 N.E.2d 257). Consequently, convictions premised on invalid guilty pleas generally are not amenable to harmless error review ( see id. ).

The Grant doctrine is not absolute, however, and we have recognized that a guilty plea entered after an improper court ruling may be upheld if there is no " reasonable possibility that the error contributed to the plea" ( id. at 379, 408 N.Y.S.2d 429, 380 N.E.2d 257). Although a failure to suppress evidence may detrimentally influence a defendant's plea negotiations, a concession of guilt may be treated as valid if the defendant articulates a reason for it that is independent of the incorrect preplea court ruling ( see id. at 379-380, 408 N.Y.S.2d 429, 380 N.E.2d 257) or an appellate court is satisfied that the decision to accept responsibility " was not influenced" by the error ( People v. Burrows, 46 N.Y.2d 957, 958, 415 N.Y.S.2d 410, 388 N.E.2d 733 [1979] see e.g. People v. Rolston, 50 N.Y.2d 1048, 1049-1050, 431 N.Y.S.2d 701, 409 N.E.2d 1375 [1980]; People v. ...

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