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People v. Wiggins

New York Court of Appeals

February 15, 2018

The People & c., Respondent,
v.
Reginald Wiggins, Appellant.

          Ben A. Schatz, for appellant.

          Sabrina Margret Bierer, for respondent.

          New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al.; JustLeadershipUSA;

          The Bronx Defenders et al., amici curiae.

          FAHEY, J.

         The answer to the question "how long is too long?" is a difficult one to resolve. However, certain basic principles must guide us. An accused's right to be presumed innocent is protected by the right to prompt justice. Incarceration should generally follow conviction, not precede it. The failure of our criminal justice system to promptly resolve cases erodes faith in its fundamental fairness. This Court has long recognized that "[s]ociety, as well as the defendant, has an important interest in assuring prompt prosecution of those suspected of criminal activity" (People v Staley, 41 N.Y.2d 789');">41 N.Y.2d 789, 792 [1977], citing People v Johnson, 38 N.Y.2d 271, 276 [1975]). Delays are often inevitable and justifiable. Nevertheless, in discharging their obligation to ensure "that those accused of crimes are swiftly brought to justice" (Johnson, 38 N.Y.2d at 276), the People do not have discretion to indefinitely delay a defendant's trial in order to pursue evidence that would strengthen their case.

         On this appeal, we must determine whether a lengthy delay between defendant's arrest and his eventual guilty plea violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. Applying the factors set forth in People v Taranovich (37 N.Y.2d 442 [1975]) to the circumstances of this case, we conclude that defendant's right to a speedy trial was violated.

         I.

         On May 24, 2008, after a "sweet sixteen" party, defendant Reginald Wiggins and codefendant Jamal Armstead confronted another partygoer after they were told that the partygoer had insulted their friend. Armstead pointed a gun at the alleged offender and pulled the trigger, but the gun did not fire. Armstead then handed the gun to defendant, who fired a shot that hit a 15-year-old bystander, killing him. Defendant was 16 years old at the time.

         Defendant was arrested on May 28, 2008 and remanded without bail. Defendant and Armstead were charged in an indictment with murder in the second degree, two counts of attempted murder in the second degree, and criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. On August 26, 2008, defendant filed an omnibus motion in Supreme Court seeking, inter alia, severance of his case from Armstead's, in part on Bruton grounds (see generally Bruton v United States, 391 U.S. 123');">391 U.S. 123');">391 U.S. 123');">391 U.S. 123 [1968]). On October 23, 2008, the court held that part of the motion seeking severance on Bruton grounds in abeyance, pending resolution of Armstead's motion to suppress his statements to police. The court, however, did not hold a Huntley hearing in Armstead's case or decide that suppression motion for nearly four years.

         For approximately 2½ years, from January 2009 to June 2011, the People sought to obtain Armstead's cooperation in testifying against defendant. The People requested numerous adjournments for that purpose, generally with Armstead's consent. Inasmuch as severance had not yet been granted, these adjournments necessarily also resulted in adjournments of defendant's case. The People pursued Armstead's cooperation for this length of time even though the People acknowledged during later litigation of defendant's speedy trial motion that Armstead "repeatedly indicated through his lawyer that he [would] never testify against the defendant, " although they further asserted, without elaboration, that "Armstead himself has wavered on this point."

         The People's efforts to obtain Armstead's cooperation were unsuccessful. In June 2011, the People presented Armstead with the terms of a cooperation agreement, which Armstead rejected. Armstead's request for reassignment of counsel was granted. In July 2011, the People announced their intention to try Armstead first, separately from defendant. The People hoped that if Armstead was convicted on a top count, he might decide to testify against defendant in exchange for a more lenient sentence. The People further asserted that Armstead's testimony "would significantly enhance the overall nature and quality of the evidence against the defendant." Due to adjournments requested by Armstead's counsel, Armstead's Huntley hearing did not begin until May 2012. In August 2012, the court denied Armstead's motion to suppress his statements.

         In the meantime, in October 2011, defendant was involved in a jailhouse altercation. He was convicted of assault in the second degree, and in June 2013, he was sentenced to 4½ years' imprisonment. That judgment was affirmed on appeal (People v Wiggins, 132 A.D.3d 514');">132 A.D.3d 514 [1st Dept 2015], lv denied 27 N.Y.3d 1076');">27 N.Y.3d 1076 [2016]). Defendant was also charged in 2009 with conspiracy and gang assault. Those charges were pending until March 2013, when they were ultimately dismissed.

         Armstead's first trial began in October 2012, resulting in a partial verdict convicting him of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. Before deliberations could continue on the remaining counts, Hurricane Sandy interrupted the trial. When the trial resumed on November 7, 2012, only 11 jurors returned, and the court declared a mistrial. Armstead's counsel announced that he would be unable to retry the case until the following April.

         In April 2013, Armstead's second trial began. That trial also ended in a mistrial due to jury deadlock. Armstead's counsel stated that he would be unable to retry the case until October.

         In May 2013, before Armstead's third trial began, defendant filed his first motion to dismiss the indictment on constitutional speedy trial grounds. The court denied that motion in December 2013. The court acknowledged that the delay was lengthy, but reasoned that "a good part of the extraordinary delay was caused by" Armstead, and that defendant had been incarcerated due to his unrelated pending cases during much of that time. The court further concluded that the defense did not appear to be impaired by the delay.

         Armstead's third trial began in January 2014. Armstead was acquitted of second-degree murder, but the jury deadlocked on the attempted murder counts, and a third mistrial was declared. Armstead's fourth trial was scheduled for August 2014. In June 2014, defendant filed a second motion to dismiss the indictment based on a violation of his constitutional right to a speedy trial.

         By September 23, 2014, Armstead's fourth trial had not yet begun, and the People had not responded to defendant's second speedy trial motion. Defendant pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the first degree in exchange for a determinate sentence of 12 years' imprisonment, to be followed by five years' postrelease supervision. During the plea proceeding, defendant withdrew his pending speedy trial motion. On October 7, 2014, defendant was sentenced in accordance with the terms of the plea agreement. On February 26, 2015, Armstead pleaded guilty to attempted murder in the second degree in exchange for a sentence of 15 years' imprisonment, to be followed by five years' postrelease supervision.

         In short, the People pursued a cooperation agreement with Armstead for approximately 2½ years. After that effort proved unsuccessful, they spent the next three years attempting to convict Armstead, trying him separately from defendant. After three mistrials, Armstead had been convicted of only criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree, he had been acquitted on the top count of second-degree murder, and the People were no closer to securing his testimony against defendant. The time between defendant's arrest on May 28, 2008 and defendant's plea on September 23, 2014 spanned six years, three months, and 25 days, from when defendant was 16 years old until he was 22. Defendant spent the entirety of that period incarcerated.

         On appeal, the Appellate Division held, in a 3-2 decision, that defendant's constitutional right to a speedy trial was not violated (People v Wiggins, 143 A.D.3d 451');">143 A.D.3d 451');">143 A.D.3d 451');">143 A.D.3d 451 [1st Dept 2016]). One of the dissenting Justices granted defendant leave to appeal to this Court (28 N.Y.3d 1152');">28 N.Y.3d 1152 [2017]). We now reverse.

         II.

         We analyze constitutional speedy trial claims using the five factors set forth in People v Taranovich (37 N.Y.2d 442 [1975]): "(1) the extent of the delay; (2) the reason for the delay; (3) the nature of the underlying charge; (4) whether or not there has been an extended period of pretrial incarceration; and (5) whether or not there is any indication that the defense has been impaired by reason of the delay" (id. at 445). These factors are similar, but not identical, to the factors used in evaluating speedy trial claims under the federal constitution, which include the "[l]ength of delay, the reason for the delay, the defendant's assertion of his right, and prejudice to the defendant" (Barker v Wingo, 407 U.S. 514');">407 U.S. 514, 530 [1972]). "[N]o one factor or combination of the factors... is necessarily decisive or determinative of the speedy trial claim, but rather the particular case must be considered in light of all the factors as they apply to it" (Taranovich, 37 N.Y.2d at 445).

         To the extent the People argue that our review of this issue is circumscribed because the balancing of the Taranovich factors generally or the lower courts' determination as to the second Taranovich factor specifically constitutes a mixed question of law and fact, we disagree. The People rely on People v Vernace (96 N.Y.2d 886, 887 [2001]), where we held that the Appellate Division's determination that the People had good cause to delay the commencement of prosecution based on witness fear was "a mixed question of law and fact for which there is support in the record" (id.). Whether witnesses were fearful involves factual inferences beyond the review powers of this Court. Here, the reason for the delay is not a disputed factual issue; the dispute pertains only to whether the reason for the delay was sufficient to justify it as a matter of law. Furthermore, we have never referred to the general application of the Taranovich factors as a mixed question over which we have limited powers of review.

         A.

         With respect to the first Taranovich factor - the length of the delay - we agree with the Appellate Division that "[t]here is no question that the six-year delay between the shooting in 2008 and defendant's guilty plea in 2014 was extraordinary'" (Wiggins, 143 A.D.3d at 455, quoting People v Staley, 41 N.Y.2d 789');">41 N.Y.2d 789, 792 [1977]; see People v Romeo, 12 N.Y.3d 51, 56 [2009], cert denied 558 U.S. 817');">558 U.S. 817 [2009]), and therefore that this factor favors defendant. Even if we examine only the time between defendant's arrest and the denial of his first speedy trial motion, as the People contend we must because defendant withdrew his second speedy trial motion when he pleaded guilty, that delay still amounts to 5½ years. Although we have "steadfastly refused to set forth a per se period beyond which a criminal prosecution may not be pursued" (Taranovich, 37 N.Y.2d at 445), and this extraordinary delay therefore is "not in itself decisive, " it demands "close scrutiny of the other factors, especially the question of why the delay occurred, " inasmuch as it is "the People's burden to bring defendant to trial in a timely fashion" (Romeo, 12 N.Y.3d at 56).

         B.

         The second Taranovich factor requires us to consider the reason for the delay. There are two primary reasons for the extraordinary delay here: adjournments consented to or requested by Armstead, and the People's desire to secure Armstead's cooperation in testifying against defendant. Although the People point to other reasons for the delay outside of their control, such as a fire in the courthouse and Hurricane Sandy, those delays were minimal. The People also note that some delay was due to defendant's requests for adjournments for motion practice, discovery, and reassignment of counsel, but those adjournments amounted to, at most, seven months of the delay.

         Addressing first delay attributable to Armstead, the Appellate Division erred in applying case law interpreting CPL 30.30 to conclude that adjournments granted with Armstead's consent "should not be chargeable here" (Wiggins, 143 A.D.3d at 455). CPL 30.30 is inapplicable, inasmuch as ...


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