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People v. Nelson

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

December 21, 2017

ROBERT NELSON, Also Known as REGINALD ROBINSON, Also Known as BLACK, Appellant.

          Calendar Date: November 17, 2017

          Kelly L. Egan, Rensselaer, for appellant, and appellant pro se.

          J. Anthony Jordon, District Attorney, Fort Edward (Joseph A. Frandino of counsel), for respondent.

          Before: Peters, P.J., Egan Jr., Lynch, Clark and Rumsey, JJ.


          Peters, P.J.

         Appeal from a judgment of the County Court of Washington County (McKeighan, J.), rendered April 25, 2014, upon a verdict convicting defendant of the crimes of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree (two counts) and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the fourth degree.

         On September 16, 2013, a vehicle in which defendant was a passenger was stopped by a state trooper for suspected violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. Upon activating his emergency lights just prior to the stop, the trooper noticed one of the backseat passengers leaning forward and reaching down, as if to hide something underneath the driver's seat. Once stopped, the trooper approached and, when the operator of the vehicle was unable to produce her driver's license, she was asked to step out of the vehicle. In response to questioning by the trooper, the operator indicated that the group was traveling to Vermont but that she did not know the other four occupants of the vehicle. His suspicions aroused, the trooper requested identification from all occupants of the vehicle. Noting a strong odor of marihuana when the rear driver's side passenger rolled down his window, the trooper asked for and obtained the driver's consent to search the vehicle. Such search of the vehicle resulted in the discovery of 587 glassine packets of heroin in a purse located on the floor of the backseat, as well as a small amount of marihuana in the trunk.

         Defendant was subsequently charged by indictment with two counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree, criminal possession of a controlled substance in the fourth degree and unlawful possession of marihuana in the fourth degree. Following a Mapp hearing, County Court denied defendant's motion to suppress the drugs, finding that the initial stop was justified and that the driver's consent to search the vehicle was voluntary and reasonably encompassed the purse on the backseat floor. The unlawful possession of marihuana charge was dismissed during the ensuing jury trial, at the conclusion of which defendant was convicted of the remaining charges. He was sentenced, as a second felony drug offender, to an aggregate prison term of 15 years followed by three years of postrelease supervision. Defendant appeals.

         County Court properly denied defendant's suppression motion. Defendant does not dispute that the trooper had authority to stop the vehicle due to, among other things, its excessively loud muffler (see Vehicle and Traffic Law § 375 [31]; People v Carver, 147 A.D.3d 415, 415 [2017], lv denied 43 N.Y.3d 1030');">43 N.Y.3d 1030 [2017]; People v Gibson, 137 A.D.3d 1657, 1657 [2016], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 1151');">27 N.Y.3d 1151 [2016]; People v Issac, 107 A.D.3d 1055, 1057 [2013]). The suspicious conduct of one of the backseat passengers upon activation of the trooper's emergency lights, the responses to the trooper's inquiry about the origin and destination of the trip, the driver's spurious claim that she did not know the other four occupants of the car and the odor of marihuana emanating from the vehicle gave rise to, at the very least, a founded suspicion that criminality was afoot justifying the trooper's request for consent to search the vehicle (see People v Blanco, 67 A.D.3d 923, 924 [2009]; People v Boyea, 44 A.D.3d 1093, 1094-1095 [2007]; People v Williams, 300 A.D.2d 684, 684-685 [2002]; People v Carter, 199 A.D.2d 817, 819 [1993], affd 86 N.Y.2d 721');">86 N.Y.2d 721 [1995]). Contrary to defendant's contention, the circumstances presented "justifie[d] the search of every part of the vehicle and its contents that may conceal the object of the search, " including the purse in the backseat (United States v Ross, 456 U.S. 798, 825 [1982]; see People v Ellis, 62 N.Y.2d 393, 398 [1984]; People v Francois, 138 A.D.3d 1165, 1167 [2016]).

         For the first time on appeal, defendant now argues that the driver lacked actual or apparent authority to consent to a search of the purse, which was later determined to belong to a female backseat passenger (see generally People v Gonzalez, 88 N.Y.2d 289');">88 N.Y.2d 289 [1996]). By not raising this argument before the suppression court, defendant has failed to preserve the issue for our review (see CPL 470.05 [2]; People v Miranda, 27 N.Y.3d 931, 932-933 [2016]; People v Vasquez, 66 N.Y.2d 968, 968 [1985], cert denied 475 U.S. 1109');">475 U.S. 1109 [1986]; People v Minori, 51 N.Y.2d 930, 931 [1980]). Nor did County Court "expressly decide[]" the issue "in response to a protest by a party" (CPL 470.05 [2]; see People v Miranda, 27 N.Y.3d at 932-933). Fundamentally, defendant's failure to advance this particular argument before County Court "deprive[d] the People of a fair opportunity to present their proof on that issue, and, as a consequence, the resulting record is inadequate to permit [this Court] to make an intelligent determination on the merits" (People v Martin, 50 N.Y.2d 1029, 1031 [1980]; see People v Tutt, 38 N.Y.2d 1011, 1013 [1976]; People v Hawkins, 130 A.D.3d 426, 426-427 [2015], lv denied 26 N.Y.3d 1088');">26 N.Y.3d 1088 [2015]; People v Perkins, 68 A.D.3d 494, 495 [2009], lv denied 14 N.Y.3d 891');">14 N.Y.3d 891 [2010]; People v Kirby, 280 A.D.2d 775, 777 [2001], lv denied 96 N.Y.2d 920');">96 N.Y.2d 920 [2001]). Accordingly, our consideration of this claim is precluded.

         Defendant also asserts that the verdict is not supported by legally sufficient evidence and is against the weight of the evidence, specifically claiming that the People failed to prove his possession of the heroin and its aggregate weight. Penal Law § 220.16 prohibits an individual from knowingly and unlawfully possessing "a narcotic drug with intent to sell it" (Penal Law § 220.16 [1]) or a mixture "containing a narcotic drug" weighing "one-half ounce or more" (Penal Law § 220.16 [12]). A person commits the crime of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the fourth degree when he or she knowingly and unlawfully possesses a mixture "containing a narcotic drug" weighing "one-eighth ounce or more" (Penal Law § 220.09 [1]).

         Turning first to the issue of possession, the People's case was predicated on the automobile presumption contained in Penal Law § 220.25 (1). That provision provides, in pertinent part, that "[t]he presence of a controlled substance in an automobile... is presumptive evidence of knowing possession thereof by each and every person in the automobile at the time such controlled substance was found; except... when the controlled substance is concealed upon the person of one of the occupants" (Penal Law § 220.25 [1]). Here, law enforcement officials who were present at the scene testified without contradiction that the subject heroin was found inside of a purse located on the backseat floor of the vehicle, and there was no "clearcut evidence" that any of the vehicle's occupants were in actual possession of the heroin immediately prior to or at the time of the search (People v Verez, 83 N.Y.2d 921, 924 [1994]). This rendered the "upon the person" exception inapplicable and provided a legally sufficient basis for application of the presumption (see id. at 923; People v Lemmons, 40 N.Y.2d 505, 511-512 [1976]; People v Tabb, 12 A.D.3d 951, 952 [2004], lv denied 4 N.Y.3d 768');">4 N.Y.3d 768 [2005]; People v Scott, 199 A.D.2d 436, 436-437 [1993], lv denied 83 N.Y.2d 858');">83 N.Y.2d 858 [1994]). While defendant urges this Court to carve out an exception to the statutory automobile presumption encompassing circumstances where, such as here, a container or object in a vehicle may be readily identifiable as belonging to one individual, we may not "legislate under the guise of interpretation" or read into a statute an exception that does not exist (People v Finnegan, 85 N.Y.2d 53, 58 [1995], cert denied 516 U.S. 919');">516 U.S. 919 [1995]; see People v Boothe, 16 N.Y.3d 195, 198 [2011]).

         Defendant's contention that the testimony did not adequately establish the weight of the heroin is likewise without merit. The forensic scientist who testified used an acceptable statistical sampling method to establish the aggregate weight of the heroin, which method was fully explained to the jury, and all of the glassine envelopes were admitted into evidence for the jury's inspection (see People v Hill, 85 N.Y.2d 256, 261 [1995]). Under these circumstances, "it was for the jury to decide whether the expert had adequately analyzed and weighed the contents and whether [her] opinion was entitled to be credited" (id. at 261 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]; see People v Argro, 37 N.Y.2d 929, 930 [1975]; People v Bolden, 70 A.D.3d 1352, 1352-1353 [2010], lv denied 14 N.Y.3d 838');">14 N.Y.3d 838 [2010]; People v Caba, 23 A.D.3d 291, 292-293 [2005], lv denied 6 N.Y.3d 810');">6 N.Y.3d 810 [2006]). Together with the stipulated nature of the substances recovered and the unchallenged proof establishing defendant's intent to sell, the evidence was legally sufficient to support each conviction (see People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d 490, 495 [1987]; People v Tabb, 12 A.D.3d at 952) [1]. Having also evaluated the evidence in a neutral light while according appropriate deference to the jury's factual assessments and credibility determinations (see People v Richardson, ___ A.D.3d ___, ___, 2017 NY Slip Op 07640, *3 [2017]; People v Gordon, 119 A.D.3d 1284, 1286 [2014], lv denied 24 N.Y.3d 1002');">24 N.Y.3d 1002 [2014]), we are satisfied that the verdict is supported by the weight of the evidence (see People v Bolden, 70 A.D.3d at 1352-1353; People v Tabb, 12 A.D.3d at 952-953; People v Pratt, 207 A.D.2d 671, 672 [1994], lv denied 84 N.Y.2d 1014 [1994]).

         Nor do we discern any error in County Court's decision to allow the People to utilize the September 18, 2013 unsworn statement of Anna Garrow, one of the backseat passengers, in lieu of her live testimony. A witness's out-of-court statements may be admitted as part of the People's direct case where the People "demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant, by violence, threats or chicanery, caused [the] witness's unavailability" (People v Cotto, 92 N.Y.2d 68, 75-76 [1998]; see People v Smart, 23 N.Y.3d 213, 220 [2014]; People v Geraci, 85 N.Y.2d 359, 365-366 [1995]). "This forfeiture rule... is based on sound public policy meant to prevent the defendant from taking advantage of his or her own wrongdoing and to protect the integrity of the proceedings by deterring the defendant from acting on the strong incentive to tamper with adverse witnesses" (People v Smart, 23 N.Y.3d at 220 [citation omitted]; see People v Dubarry, 25 N.Y.3d 161, 174 [2015]; People v Maher, 89 N.Y.2d 456, 461 [1997]). "Recognizing the surreptitious nature of witness tampering and that a defendant engaging in such conduct will rarely do so openly, resorting instead to subterfuge, the court can rely on and the prosecution ...

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