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People v. Prindle

New York Court of Appeals

June 29, 2017

The People & c., Respondent,
v.
Michael E. Prindle, Appellant.

          James A. Hobbs, for appellant.

          Leah R. Mervine, for respondent.

          The Legal Aid Society, amicus curiae.

          OPINION

          WILSON, J.

         "This appeal presents another Apprendi challenge to New York's discretionary persistent felony offender sentencing scheme. The primary issue before us is whether, in light of [ Alleyne v United States, (133 S.Ct. 2151');">133 S.Ct. 2151');">133 S.Ct. 2151');">133 S.Ct. 2151 [2013])], this sentencing scheme violates Apprendi and defendant's due process and Sixth Amendment rights. We again uphold the constitutionality of New York's discretionary persistent felony offender sentencing scheme and further hold that defendant's constitutional rights were not violated" (People v Quinones, 12 N.Y.3d 116, 119).

         I.

         The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guarantee criminal defendants in state courts "the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury." To satisfy that right, the People must prove each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Among those elements is any fact - other than one admitted by the defendant or involving the mere fact of a prior felony conviction (Almendarez-Torres v United States, 523 U.S. 224 [1998]) - that has the effect of increasing the prescribed range of penalties to which a defendant is exposed (see Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 489-490). For nearly two decades, the United States Supreme Court has applied the Apprendi rule in cases involving capital punishment (Hurst v Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616');">136 S.Ct. 616 [2016]; Ring v Arizona, 536 U.S. 584');">536 U.S. 584 [2002]), broad judicial discretion to find aggravating factors (Cunningham v California, 549 U.S. 270');">549 U.S. 270 [2007]; Blakely v Washington, 542 U.S. 296');">542 U.S. 296 [2004]), the federal sentencing guidelines (United States v Booker, 543 U.S. 220');">543 U.S. 220 [2005]), and mandatory minimum sentences (Alleyne, 133 S.Ct. 2151');">133 S.Ct. 2151');">133 S.Ct. 2151');">133 S.Ct. 2151).

         Each successive decision of the Supreme Court has brought renewed challenges to the constitutionality of New York's persistent felony offender statute. From the first of those challenges, we have held that the statute (Penal Law § 70.10 [1] [a]), falls within the exception provided by Almendarez-Torres, and thus outside the scope of the Apprendi rule, because it exposes defendants to an enhanced sentencing range based only on the existence of two prior felony convictions (People v Giles, 24 N.Y.3d 1066 [2014]; People v Battles, 16 N.Y.3d 54');">16 N.Y.3d 54 [2010]; People v Quinones, 12 N.Y.3d 116');">12 N.Y.3d 116 [2009]; People v Rivera, 5 N.Y.3d 61');">5 N.Y.3d 61 [2005]; People v Rosen, 96 N.Y.2d 329');">96 N.Y.2d 329 [2001]) [1]. As we have consistently explained, the existence of those prior convictions - each the result of either a guilty plea or a jury verdict - is the " sole determinant of whether a defendant is subject to recidivist sentencing as a persistent felony offender" (Rivera, 5 N.Y.3d at 66, citing Rosen, 96 N.Y.2d at 335). Only after the existence of those prior convictions is established and the maximum permissible sentence raised does Supreme Court have "the discretion to choose the appropriate sentence within a sentencing range prescribed by statute " (Quinones, 12 N.Y.3d at 129; see Penal Law § 70.10 [2]). [2]

         "The court's opinion is, of course, subject to appellate review, as is any exercise of discretion. The Appellate Division, in its own discretion, may conclude that a persistent felony offender sentence is too harsh or otherwise improvident" and reduce it in the interest of justice to a sentence within the statutory range fixed by the legislature for the crime of conviction, without regard to the persistent felony offender enhancement (Rivera, 5 N.Y.3d at 68-69). "In this way, the Appellate Division can and should mitigate inappropriately severe applications of the statute" (id.).

         In other words, the statute mandates a two-part process: in step one, the court adjudicates the defendant a persistent felony offender if the necessary and sufficient fact of the two prior convictions is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, thereby exposing him to the sentencing range applicable to such offenders; in step two, it evaluates what sentence is warranted and sets forth an explanation of its opinion on that question for the record (see Penal Law § 70.10 [2]; Rivera, 5 N.Y.3d at 68).

         Although Rivera and several of our cases following it include dissents questioning the soundness of our construction of New York's persistent felony offender statute (Giles, 24 N.Y.3d at 1073-1076 [Abdus-Salaam, J., dissenting]; Battles, 16 N.Y.3d at 49-68 [Lippman, Ch. J., dissenting in part]; Rivera, 5 N.Y.3d at 71-76 [Kaye, Ch. J., dissenting]; Rivera, 5 N.Y.3d at 76-83 [Ciparick, J., dissenting]), that construction has withstood both Sixth Amendment scrutiny and the test of time [3]. For the reasons elaborated in our prior cases and the principle of stare decisis, our construction withstands Mr. Prindle's suit as well.

         II.

         In addition to asking us to discard our well-settled construction of the persistent felony offender statute established in Rosen, Rivera, Quinones, Battles, and Giles (a decision that would require us to strike down the statute as unconstitutional and hold the sentence at issue illegal), Mr. Prindle argues that the Supreme Court's recent extension of Apprendi to increases in the mandatory minimum of a sentencing range requires us to declare that the statute, even as construed in our prior caselaw, violates the Sixth Amendment. His argument is unavailing because the persistent felony offender statute never increases the mandatory minimum sentence to which a persistent felony offender is exposed. Instead, persistent felons are subject to the same mandatory minimum as non-recidivist offenders guilty of the same crime.

         In Alleyne v United States, the Supreme Court applied Apprendi and remanded for resentencing the case of a defendant who was subjected to an increased, mandatory minimum term of imprisonment based on a judicial finding that he had brandished, rather than merely used or carried, a firearm in relation to a crime of violence (Alleyne, 133 S.Ct. at 2155; 18 USC § 924 [c] [1] [A]). Overruling Harris v U.S. (536 U.S. 545');">536 U.S. 545 [2002]), which had limited Apprendi to cases increasing the maximum sentence, the Court held that "a fact that increases either end of the ...


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