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People v. Rodriguez

Supreme Court of New York, First Department

January 2, 2018

The People of the State of New York, Respondent,
Lorenzo Rodriguez, Defendant-Appellant.

         Defendant appeals the judgment of the Supreme Court, New York County (Maxwell Wiley, J.), rendered December 18, 2014, convicting defendant, after a jury trial, of burglary in the second degree, and imposing sentence.

          Robert S. Dean, Center for Appellate Litigation, New York (Matthew Bova of counsel), for appellant.

          Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., District Attorney, New York (Hope Korenstein and Alan Gadlin of counsel), for respondent.

          Rosalyn H. Richter, J.P., Troy K. Webber, Cynthia S. Kern, Peter H. Moulton, JJ.

          WEBBER, J.

         On August 28, 2013, at approximately 9:10 p.m., complainant Lopez returned to her top floor, one bedroom apartment in upper Manhattan, which she shared with her husband and two other individuals. When Lopez entered her bedroom, she encountered a stranger, later identified as defendant, standing near the bedroom window. Lopez screamed to her husband that someone was in the apartment. Defendant retreated out the window and up the fire escape ladder. Lopez then noticed that her iPad was missing from her bedroom table and her piggy bank was missing from where she had left it near the bedroom window.

         At the same time, Police Officer Orlando Corchado and his partner, Officer Lassen, were on the roof of the building, performing a vertical patrol, checking every floor and then ascending to the roof [1]. Corchado was about 6 to 10 feet from the fire escape when he saw defendant climb up the fire escape ladder toward the roof. Defendant was wearing latex gloves and was carrying a white piggy bank in his left hand. Corchado asked defendant in English why he was there. Defendant answered in Spanish that he worked for the super. Ignoring Corchado's further request that he stop, defendant climbed back down the ladder.

         Defendant reappeared at Lopez's window, climbed into the bedroom, and moved through the bedroom toward the apartment's outer door. Along the way, he handed the piggy bank to Lopez's husband and said, "I'm sorry, here's your piggy bank." Moments later, Corchado and Lassen followed defendant through the window into the Lopez apartment. Corchado asked Lopez if she knew defendant and if he worked for the super. Lopez replied that defendant "was a thief." As Corchado proceeded after defendant, he saw him - who was in the hallway of the apartment - reach behind his back and remove an iPad mini that was stuffed in the back waistband of his jeans. Defendant appeared about to discard the iPad when one of the residents of the apartment grabbed it from him. Defendant was placed under arrest by Corchado. Police Officer Lassen searched defendant and recovered from his pockets two flashlights, an iPad charger, a cell phone and latex gloves. Defendant was transported to the hospital and then to the precinct. While in a holding cell at the precinct, and before the administration of his Miranda rights, defendant stated that he was visiting his girlfriend who resided on the 4th floor of the building, and climbed up the fire escape so as to avoid being discovered by her husband.

         Virtually from the beginning of the prosecution, defendant filed numerous pro se motions, all before the trial court. Defendant filed cross grand jury notice indicating his desire to testify before the grand jury. He then filed a motion to dismiss the indictment based upon the legal insufficiency of the evidence before the grand jury, specifically his failure and the failure of his girlfriend to testify before the grand jury. Defendant also filed two motions for reassignment of counsel, both of which were granted. Defendant later filed a motion for a reduction in bail and a motion to dismiss the indictment on speedy trial grounds.

         On May 8, 2014, shortly prior to the commencement of the suppression hearings, and represented by his third court-appointed attorney, defendant moved to proceed pro se. He informed the court that he wished to represent himself because "all of" his attorneys had "lied" to him.

         In response to the court's inquiry, defendant stated that he had never before represented himself; that he had been represented by counsel in a trial that occurred 13 years earlier; that the highest level of education he had completed was the "[f]ourth grade of elementary school"; that he could not "read any English at all, " and would require an interpreter to help him read the documents in the case.

         The court stated to defendant that representing oneself at trial was "a very, very bad idea" - which the court compared to "a doctor treating himself for his own illness" - and stated that it was "better" for defendant to allow "a trained person who is not personally involved in the case" to "look at the evidence." The court stated that defendant may "allow emotion and [his] lack of legal training to lead [him] to make some bad determinations at trial." While acknowledging that defendant had the right to choose to represent himself, the court stated "it's a bad decision."

         The court also stated that if defendant chose to proceed pro se, he would be required to select a jury which involved knowing the rules of the court as well as the number of applicable challenges; decide whether to deliver an opening statement; question the People's witnesses; and decide without advice from anyone whether he would testify on his own behalf. The court informed defendant that neither the court nor the prosecution could provide him with legal advice. The court also suggested that defendant's effectiveness might be hampered because he would have to communicate with the jury through an interpreter. Finally, the court informed defendant that he would be required to abide by the court's rulings, just as any lawyer would, and would not be permitted to "talk out of turn" or "interrupt the court." Defendant assured the court that he understood all requirements.

         At the next court appearance, on May 13, 2014, counsel stated that he had spoken with defendant the previous day, and that defendant had given counsel permission to sit at counsel table and advise him. The court acquiesced and commenced the suppression hearing. On cross-examination of the People's first witness, the arresting officer, the court sustained the People's objection to defendant's very first question. Defendant then announced that he was "not going to continue here, " and started to leave the courtroom. The court stated that while defendant was free to leave, the hearings and trial would continue without him. Defendant asserted that the court could not continue without him because "I'm my own attorney."

         After further consultation with counsel, counsel informed the court that defendant had asked him to continue the hearing. Defendant stated that he would let counsel represent him, but that if he "[saw] that things are going wrong" he would not come back to court. The court ...

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