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People v. Byrd

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

July 20, 2017

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Respondent,
v.
RASHAD BYRD, Appellant.

          Calendar Date: June 5, 2017

          Susan Patnode, Rural Law Center of New York, Castleton (Kelly L. Egan of counsel), for appellant.

          Mary E. Rain, District Attorney, Canton (Jason P. Weinstein, New York State Prosecutors Training Institute, Inc., Albany, of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: Egan Jr., J.P., Lynch, Devine, Clark and Aarons, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          Clark, J.

         Appeal from a judgment of the County Court of St. Lawrence County (Richards, J.), rendered December 15, 2014, convicting defendant following a nonjury trial of the crime of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree.

         In March 2014, defendant was charged by indictment with, as relevant here, criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree based upon his possession of eight baggies of crack cocaine weighing a combined total of roughly two grams [1]. Following a nonjury trial, [2] defendant was convicted of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree and sentenced, as a second felony offender, to a prison term of eight years, followed by three years of postrelease supervision. Defendant now appeals, and we affirm.

         Initially, we find no merit to defendant's assertion that he did not voluntarily waive his right to remain silent and that County Court therefore should have suppressed statements he made to law enforcement officers prior to his invocation of his right to counsel. "The People bore the burden of proving the voluntariness of defendant's statements beyond a reasonable doubt, including that any custodial interrogation was preceded by the administration and defendant's knowing waiver of his Miranda rights" (People v Culver, 69 A.D.3d 976, 976 [2010] [citation omitted]; see People v Rizvi, 126 A.D.3d 1172, 1173 [2015], lv denied 25 N.Y.3d 1076');">25 N.Y.3d 1076 [2015]). To that end, the People relied on the uncontroverted testimony of the arresting officer, who stated that, once defendant exited his vehicle, defendant was patted down, handcuffed and placed in the front seat of his police vehicle. The arresting officer testified that he then - at 7:20 p.m. - read defendant his Miranda rights from a preprinted card and that defendant expressly stated that he understood each individual right. The arresting officer also testified that defendant orally waived his Miranda rights and responded in the affirmative when asked if he was willing to answer questions. According to the arresting officer, defendant invoked his right to counsel six minutes later, at 7:26 p.m., after making various incriminating statements.

         While defendant contends that his waiver was involuntary because the police officers involved in his apprehension had ordered him out of his vehicle with their firearms drawn, the arresting officer testified that, at the time that defendant was placed in the police vehicle, read Miranda rights and questioned, his weapon was reholstered beneath his coat and that the officers who remained on the scene had also reholstered their respective weapons. Considering the totality of the circumstances and according appropriate deference to County Court's factual and credibility determinations (see People v Rankin, 127 A.D.3d 1335, 1339 [2015], lvs denied 26 N.Y.3d 1144, 1149 [2016]; People v Nadal, 131 A.D.3d 729, 730 [2015], lv denied 26 N.Y.3d 1041');">26 N.Y.3d 1041 [2015]), we find no basis to disturb County Court's determination that, from 7:20 p.m. to 7:26 p.m., defendant voluntarily waived his Miranda rights (see People v Rizvi, 126 A.D.3d at 1173; People v Baker, 27 A.D.3d 1006, 1008 [2006], lv denied 7 N.Y.3d 785');">7 N.Y.3d 785 [2006]) [3]. Accordingly, County Court properly denied defendant's motion to suppress the statements he made to law enforcement prior to invoking his right to counsel.

         Defendant also contends that his conviction for criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree was not supported by legally sufficient evidence of his intent to sell and is also against the weight of the evidence. "A verdict is legally insufficient [when], viewing the record in the light most favorable to the prosecution, there is no 'valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences from which a rational jury could have found the elements of the crime proved beyond a reasonable doubt'" (People v Nicholas, 130 A.D.3d 1314, 1315 [2015], quoting People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d 342, 349 [2007]). In determining whether a conviction is against the weight of the evidence, we first assess whether, based on all of the credible evidence, a different result would have been unreasonable; where a different outcome would not have been unreasonable, we then "'weigh the relative probative force of conflicting testimony and the relative strength of conflicting inferences that may be drawn from the testimony, '" while viewing the evidence in a neutral light and according deference to the factfinder's credibility assessments (People v Romero, 7 N.Y.3d 633, 643 [2006], quoting People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d 490, 495 [1987]; see People v Gibson, 121 A.D.3d 1416, 1418 [2014], lv denied 24 N.Y.3d 1119');">24 N.Y.3d 1119 [2015]).

         "A person is guilty of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree when he [or she] knowingly and unlawfully possesses... a narcotic drug with intent to sell it" (Penal Law § 220.16 [1]). Because direct evidence of a defendant's mental state is often unavailable (see People v Rodriguez, 17 N.Y.3d 486, 489 [2011]; People v Smith, 79 N.Y.2d 309, 315 [1992]), intent to sell a controlled substance may be properly inferred from the underlying facts and circumstances, including the amount of controlled substances recovered and the manner in which it was packaged (see People v Sanchez, 86 N.Y.2d 27, 35 [1995]; People v Montford, 145 A.D.3d 1344, 1346 [2016], lv denied 29 N.Y.3d 999');">29 N.Y.3d 999 [2017]; People v Harvey, 96 A.D.3d 1098, 1100 [2012], lv denied 20 N.Y.3d 933');">20 N.Y.3d 933 [2012]; People v Barton, 13 A.D.3d 721, 723 [2004], lv denied 5 N.Y.3d 785');">5 N.Y.3d 785 [2005]). Further, in this context, the word sell is broadly defined, and "means to sell, exchange, give or dispose of to another, or to offer to agree to do the same" (Penal Law § 220.00 [1]; see People v Starling, 85 N.Y.2d 509, 514 [1995]; People v Kindred, 100 A.D.3d 1038, 1040 [2012], lv denied 21 N.Y.3d 913');">21 N.Y.3d 913 [2013]; People v Patchen, 46 A.D.3d 1112, 1113 [2007], lv denied 10 N.Y.3d 814');">10 N.Y.3d 814 [2008]).

         Here, although unartfully presented, the trial evidence established that roughly two grams of crack cocaine were found in the rental vehicle that defendant was operating at the time that he was stopped by law enforcement officers and arrested for earlier alleged criminal activity. The arresting officer testified that the crack cocaine was found in two separate bags, with one of the bags containing "seven individually-wrapped corner baggies tied off, " and that, in his experience, the individual baggies were "packaged for resale." The arresting officer also testified that rental vehicles are commonly used for narcotics transportation because such vehicles cannot be seized by police. Further, the trial evidence demonstrated that a 9 millimeter magazine - unaccompanied by a pistol - was found in the rental vehicle and that a digital scale was discovered in a hotel room to which defendant admitted he had access. Most significant, however, were defendant's statements to the arresting officer prior to his invocation of his right to counsel. In particular, defendant admitted that, earlier in the day, he had provided a certain friend with cash to purchase marihuana for him and that, when the friend delivered the marihuana, he gave the friend crack cocaine for his efforts. The arresting officer testified that defendant had been surveilled by police for several hours prior to his arrest and that he had been observed with the particular friend in the rental vehicle. As the foregoing evidence provided a valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences from which County Court could have rationally concluded that defendant knowingly and unlawfully possessed the crack cocaine with an intent to sell, defendant's conviction for criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree is supported by legally sufficient evidence (see People v Kindred, 100 A.D.3d at 1040; People v Patchen, 46 A.D.3d at 1113-1114; People v Belo, 240 A.D.2d 964, 966 [1997], lv denied 91 N.Y.2d 869');">91 N.Y.2d 869 [1997]).

         As to our weight of the evidence review, it would not have been unreasonable for County Court to have reached a different conclusion on the question of intent, given that defendant possessed rolling papers and marihuana and stated that he liked to smoke marihuana with crack cocaine, and that the quantity of crack cocaine found in the vehicle could have been for personal use. However, having independently weighed the evidence, including the conflicting inferences that may be drawn from the testimony, we are satisfied that the conviction is not against the weight of the evidence (see People v Blalark, 126 A.D.3d 1124, 1125-1126 [2015], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 992');">27 N.Y.3d 992 [2016]; People v Kindred, 100 A.D.3d at 1040; People v Patchen, 46 A.D.3d at 1113-1114; People v Mitchell, 208 A.D.2d 992, 993-994 [1994], lv denied 84 N.Y.2d 1035');">84 N.Y.2d 1035 [1995]).

         Next, defendant argues that County Court exceeded the bounds of its authority by assuming the role of an advocate, rather than an impartial factfinder. "[A] [t]rial [j]udge in criminal matters may take an active part in the examination of witnesses where questioning is necessary to elicit significant facts, to clarify or enlighten an issue or merely to facilitate the orderly and expeditious progress of the trial" (People v Mendes, 3 N.Y.2d 120, 121 [1957]; see People v Yut Wai Tom, 53 N.Y.2d 44, 57 [1981]; People v Storfs, 47 N.Y.2d 882, 883 [1979]). However, because the court's principle "function is to protect the record, not to make it" (People v Yut Wai Tom, 53 N.Y.2d at 58), such power must "be exercised sparingly, without partiality, bias or hostility, as excessive interference or the suggestion of an opinion on the part of the [t]rial [j]udge might well prove ...


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