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People v. Johnson

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

June 29, 2017


          Calendar Date: April 25, 2017

          Mark Diamond, Albany, for appellant.

          Andrew J. Wylie, District Attorney, Plattsburgh (Timothy Blatchley of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: Garry, J.P., Lynch, Rose, Clark and Aarons, JJ.


          GARRY, J.P.

         Appeal from a judgment of the County Court of Clinton County (Ryan, J.), rendered February 19, 2014, upon a verdict convicting defendant of the crimes of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree (two counts) and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree (two counts).

         Defendant sold crack cocaine to a confidential informant (hereinafter CI) in two controlled buys in 2012. Thereafter, he was charged by indictment with two counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree and two counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree. Following a jury trial, he was convicted as charged. County Court sentenced defendant to an aggregate prison term of

         14 years, followed by four years of postrelease supervision, and ordered him to pay $600 in restitution to the Clinton County District Attorney's office, with surcharges and fees. Defendant appeals.

         Initially, we reject defendant's contention that audio recordings of the alleged drug transactions were inaudible and that the jury therefore gave undue weight to transcriptions prepared by the People. Whether a recording is audible is "a preliminary issue to be determined by County Court in the exercise of its discretion" (People v Rostick, 244 A.D.2d 768, 768 [1997], lv denied 91 N.Y.2d 929');">91 N.Y.2d 929 [1998]). An audio recording is inadmissible only when it is so muffled or indistinct that a jury cannot discern its contents without speculation. Admissibility is favored, and a partially inaudible recording will be admitted "so long as the transactions can be generally understood by the jury, [in which case] such infirmities go to the weight of the evidence and not to its admissibility" (People v Lewis, 25 A.D.3d 824, 827 [2006], lvs denied 7 N.Y.3d 791, 796 [2006]; see People v McCaw, 137 A.D.3d 813, 815 [2016], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 1071');">27 N.Y.3d 1071 [2016]; People v Rivera, 257 A.D.2d 172, 176 [1999], affd 94 N.Y.2d 908');">94 N.Y.2d 908 [2000]). Our review of the recordings reveals that, although background noise makes some portions inaudible, the remainder is sufficiently clear and intelligible to permit the jury to understand the contents without resorting to conjecture. As to the transcripts, County Court repeatedly instructed the jury that parts of the recordings might be inaudible, that the transcripts were not evidence and represented the People's version of what was said, and that it was for the jury to draw its own conclusions as to the correct interpretation of the recordings and the weight, if any, to give to them (see People v Morris, 32 A.D.3d 561, 562 [2006], lvs denied 7 N.Y.3d 869, 870 [2006]; People v Mitchell, 220 A.D.2d 813, 814 [1995], lv denied 87 N.Y.2d 905');">87 N.Y.2d 905 [1995]). Accordingly, we find no abuse of discretion in the admission of the recordings or the use of the transcripts.

         Next, defendant contends that the verdict is not supported by legally sufficient evidence and is against the weight of the evidence. We disagree. The investigator who conducted the controlled buys testified that she had been employed with the State Police for over 11 years, had conducted over 300 controlled buys and had assisted on hundreds more. She stated that the CI had performed approximately 20 buys and that she considered him to be credible and reliable. She was assisted on both buys by another State Police investigator. Their trial testimony and that of the CI established that the CI contacted the investigators and told them that he could arrange a controlled buy to purchase crack cocaine from defendant at a specified location in Clinton County. The investigators met with the CI, who told them that defendant had changed the buy location at the last minute, a technique that was, according to the investigators, commonly used by drug sellers to avoid surveillance. The investigators searched the CI, his stepfather - who was providing the CI with transportation - and the stepfather's vehicle, and found no contraband. The CI was then provided with funds for the purchase as well as audio equipment that would record the transaction and permit the investigators to listen as it occurred.

         The stepfather transported the CI to the agreed meeting location. While monitoring events through the audio equipment, the investigators followed and parked nearby. Defendant was late - another technique that the investigators stated was often used to avoid surveillance - and the stepfather and the CI left the scene briefly to look for him before returning. The investigators saw defendant arrive on foot and took several photographs of him. The CI gave the cash to defendant after they met, and they were then approached by an unknown third party. This "spooked" defendant, according to the CI; he and the CI then got into the stepfather's car and drove to another public location, where they separated briefly and, thereafter, traveled together to the CI's residence. The investigators followed and parked nearby. The CI, the stepfather and defendant entered the garage, where the investigators could not see them but listened to the transaction through the audio equipment.

         The testimony of the CI and the stepfather, supported by the audio recording, established that the CI and defendant had a brief conversation in which they decided to apply part of the cash to a debt that the CI owed to defendant. Defendant then took several packages known as tie-offs from his pocket, gave two of them - containing what later proved to be crack cocaine - to the CI, and gave a third to the stepfather. The CI then met the investigators and gave them the tie-offs and the recording equipment; the investigators searched him again and found no contraband.

         Several weeks later, the CI and the stepfather arranged a second controlled buy in which the CI planned to meet defendant at the CI's residence to purchase two grams of crack cocaine. As before, the investigators searched the CI, his girlfriend, who was providing the transportation, and the girlfriend's vehicle, and found no contraband. They provided the CI with audio recording equipment and cash, including the drug purchase money and some reimbursement for related expenses for his phone and gasoline [1]. The investigators then followed the CI to his residence. Once again, defendant was late. When he eventually arrived, the CI met him outside. He and the CI then went into the residence, where the stepfather and others were present. Defendant and the CI then entered the stepfather's bedroom, where, according to the CI, they agreed after some negotiations that part of the funds would be applied to the CI's debt and part used to purchase a single gram of crack cocaine. After the transaction, the CI and his girlfriend met with the investigators and were searched; only the remaining balance of the money that they had given to the CI was found. The CI turned over the audio equipment and one tie-off containing crack cocaine.

         Defendant argues that the investigators did not witness the drug transactions, and that the only eyewitnesses - the CI and the stepfather - are unworthy of belief. We disagree. The CI did acknowledge that he began acting as a CI in an effort to reduce his sentence after being charged with a crime and that charges were pending at the time of the controlled buys. He further acknowledged his significant criminal history and former addiction to narcotics. The stepfather likewise acknowledged his own long criminal history and that he was using drugs at the time of the controlled buys. However, these issues were thoroughly explored upon cross-examination, and the credibility questions that they presented were for the jury to resolve (see People v Rodriguez, 121 A.D.3d 1435, 1441 [2014], lv denied24 N.Y.3d 1122');">24 N.Y.3d 1122 [2015]; People v Self, 75 A.D.3d 924, 926 [2010], lv denied15 N.Y.3d 895');">15 N.Y.3d 895 [2010]). We find that the evidence pertaining to both transactions was legally sufficient to support defendant's convictions (see People v Nicholas, 130 A.D.3d 1314, 1315-1316 [2015]; People v Gibson, 121 A.D.3d ...

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