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People v. Sparks

New York Court of Appeals

March 30, 2017

The People & c., Respondent,
v.
Yusuf Sparks, Appellant.

          Andrew J. Dalack, for appellant.

          Susan Gliner, for respondent.

          MEMORANDUM:

         The order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed.

         Defendant was charged with one count of assault in the first degree (Penal Law § 120.10 [1]) following a dispute at a Manhattan bodega. Defendant, then age 19, and the victim, a 50-year-old man with a long history of substance abuse and criminal activity, had a verbal exchange inside the bodega after the victim provoked defendant. Based on that affront, defendant twice threatened to "murder" the victim, who was in an inebriated, stumbling state, before eventually punching him inside that store. In defendant's words, the punch "knocked [the victim] out."

         The surveillance footage that was admitted into evidence at the jury trial contains images of what happened outside the bodega after defendant punched the victim. In sum, after defendant struck the victim, defendant and the victim separately left the immediate vicinity of that store on foot. A few minutes later, the footage reflects that defendant re-entered the bodega; soon thereafter, the victim returned to the area immediately outside that store and stumbled about. Inside the bodega, defendant asked the shopkeeper for a stick, [1] but the shopkeeper refused that request, saying that the punch was "enough for [the victim]." Defendant, however, told the shopkeeper that he was going to walk outside and "knock [the victim] out again."

         The surveillance footage reflects that defendant did exactly that. As he walked out of the bodega, defendant struck the unsuspecting victim in the face with a milk crate. The blow knocked the victim to the sidewalk, and defendant walked away from that store. The victim, however, was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he was determined to have a broken nose and cheekbone, and where he received potentially life-saving treatment for a traumatic brain injury.

         Following the trial, defendant was convicted of the lesser included offense of assault in the second degree (Penal Law § 120.05 [2]). On appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the judgment of conviction (132 A.D.3d 513');">132 A.D.3d 513 [1st Dept 2015]). A Judge of this Court granted defendant leave to appeal (26 N.Y.3d 1092 [2015]), and we now affirm the Appellate Division order.

         Contrary to defendant's contention, the trial court properly refused to instruct the jury on the defense of justification. Viewing the record in the light most favorable to defendant, as we must (see People v Watts, 57 N.Y.2d 299, 301 [1982]), we conclude there is no reasonable view of the evidence that would have permitted the factfinder to conclude that defendant's conduct was justified (see People v Cox, 92 N.Y.2d 1002, 1004 [1998]; cf. People v Petty, 7 N.Y.3d 277, 284 [2006]). That is, we agree with the People that there is no evidence that objectively supports a belief that defendant was in danger of being physically harmed by the victim at the time defendant used force against him (see Cox, 92 N.Y.2d at 1005; see also People v Wesley, 76 N.Y.2d 555, 559 [1990]). [2]

         Here, after "knocking [the victim] out, " defendant was able to freely and safely walk away from the bodega. Moreover, there simply is no evidence that, once he returned to the bodega, defendant needed to leave that store to strike the victim to defend himself. Even if defendant's trial testimony establishes that he actually believed that the victim was lying in wait for him with a weapon (see generally Wesley, 76 N.Y.2d at 559), there is no reasonable view of the evidence that "a reasonable person in... defendant's circumstances would have believed" the victim to have threatened him with the imminent use of unlawful physical force (Umali, 10 N.Y.3d at 425; see Penal Law § 35.15 [1]). Put simply, the surveillance footage reflects that defendant's ambush of the victim with the milk crate cannot be considered self defense.

         We agree with defendant that the trial court erred in adjusting its Sandoval ruling based on defendant's trial testimony (cf. People v Fardan, 82 N.Y.2d 638, 645-647 [1993]). We further conclude, however, that the error is harmless. The evidence of defendant's guilt is overwhelming, and there is no significant probability that the outcome of the trial would have been different in the absence of that error (see generally People v Crimmins, 36 N.Y.2d 230, 241-242 [1975]).

         Order affirmed, in a memorandum.

          Chief Judge DiFiore and Judges Rivera, Abdus-Salaam, Stein, Fahey, Garcia and Wilson concur.

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