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People v. Myers

Supreme Court of New York, Third Department

April 5, 2018

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK, Respondent,
v.
SCOTT MYERS, Appellant.

          Calendar Date: February 21, 2018

          John R. Sandleitner, Special Prosecutor, Tannersville, for respondent.

          Bruce Evans Knoll, Albany, for appellant, and appellant pro se.

          Before: McCarthy, J.P., Lynch, Devine, Clark and Pritzker, JJ.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CLARK, J.

         Appeals (1) from a judgment of the County Court of Greene County (Koweek, J.), rendered April 11, 2014, upon a verdict convicting defendant of the crimes of criminal contempt in the first degree (two counts) and criminal contempt in the second degree (four counts), (2) by permission, from an order of said court, entered November 24, 2015, which denied defendant's motion pursuant to CPL 440.10 to vacate the judgment of conviction, without a hearing, (3) by permission, from an order of said court, entered November 24, 2015, which denied defendant's motion pursuant to CPL 440.20 to set aside the sentence, without a hearing, (4) by permission, from an order of said court, entered February 22, 2017, which, among other things, partially granted defendant's motion pursuant to CPL 440.10 and 440.20 to vacate the judgment of conviction and set aside the sentence, and (5) from a judgment of said court, rendered April 13, 2017, which resentenced defendant.

         In September 2013, defendant was charged by indictment with two counts of criminal contempt in the first degree (counts 1 and 2) and six counts of criminal contempt in the second degree, all arising out of his alleged violations of a 2006 order of protection issued in favor of his children and former spouse (hereinafter collectively referred to as the victims). Following a jury trial, at which defendant proceeded pro se with the assistance of standby counsel, defendant was convicted of both counts of criminal contempt in the first degree and four counts of criminal contempt in the second degree [1]. County Court sentenced defendant to an aggregate prison term of 1⅓ to 4 years, imposed a $5, 000 fine and issued an order of protection in favor of the victims. Defendant appeals from the judgment of conviction. [2]

         Thereafter, defendant moved pursuant to CPL 440.10 to vacate the judgment of conviction and separately moved pursuant to CPL 440.20 to set aside the resulting sentence. Without conducting a hearing, County Court denied both motions in separate orders. Defendant, by permission, appeals from both of those orders. Meanwhile, defendant successfully moved to vacate earlier convictions that served as predicate offenses for his felony convictions under counts 1 and 2 of the indictment. Defendant then moved, pursuant to CPL 440.10 and 440.20, for an order vacating and/or reducing those felony convictions or vacating the entire judgment of conviction and setting aside the sentence. County Court granted defendant's motion to the extent of reducing his convictions for criminal contempt in the first degree to convictions for criminal contempt in the second degree and ordered that defendant be resentenced on all counts, but otherwise denied the motion. Defendant, by permission, appeals from this order. County Court subsequently resentenced defendant - on his six misdemeanor convictions for criminal contempt in the second degree - to time served. County Court also issued an amended order charging defendant with applicable surcharges, as well as an order of protection in favor of the victims. Defendant appeals from this judgment.

         Defendant argues that his convictions for criminal contempt in the second degree under counts 3, 7 and 8 of the indictment are not supported by legally sufficient evidence. Defendant, however, failed to preserve this argument by moving for a trial order of dismissal (see People v Hawkins, 11 N.Y.3d 484, 492 [2008]; People v Jones, 101 A.D.3d 1241, 1241 [2012], lv denied 21 N.Y.3d 944');">21 N.Y.3d 944 [2013]). As defendant also asserts that these convictions are against the weight of the evidence, we necessarily evaluate whether the elements of each charged crime were proven beyond a reasonable doubt (see People v Danielson, 9 N.Y.3d 342, 348-349 [2007]; People v Young, 152 A.D.3d 981, 981 [2017], lv denied 30 N.Y.3d 955');">30 N.Y.3d 955 [2017]). "To secure a conviction of criminal contempt in the second degree, the People were required to prove that defendant intentionally disobeyed or resisted the lawful process or other mandate of a court in a case other than one involving or growing out of a labor dispute" (People v Richardson, 155 A.D.3d 1099, 1101 [2017]; see Penal Law § 215.50 [3]).

         Because, upon review of the evidence, a different result would not have been unreasonable, we must "weigh the relative probative force of conflicting testimony and the relative strength of conflicting inferences that may be drawn from the testimony" (People v Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d 490, 495 [1987] [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; see People v Rosario, 157 A.D.3d 988, 989 [2018]; People v LaBarge, 80 A.D.3d 892, 893 [2011], lv denied 17 N.Y.3d 797');">17 N.Y.3d 797 [2011]). The evidence at trial established that, by virtue of a 2006 order of protection that expires in 2019, [3] defendant was required to stay away from, and refrain from contacting, the victims. Defendant's testimony at trial demonstrated that he had knowledge of this order of protection and its terms at the time of the alleged violations. With respect to count 3 of the indictment, which charged defendant with violating the order of protection by visiting the residence of his ex-wife on a particular rainy evening in July 2013, the People presented the testimony of a neighbor, who stated that he had observed defendant outside the residence at the time in question. As to count 7, which alleged that defendant left letters for his son on the front porch of his ex-wife's home in August 2013, the ex-wife testified that she discovered the letters and recognized the handwriting as belonging to defendant. Additionally, a law enforcement officer testified that the ex-wife reported the incident to him and that he photographed and collected the letters, which were admitted into evidence without objection. Finally, count 8 of the indictment charged defendant with violating the order of protection by sending his ex-wife an email in August 2013. The email in question, which was copied to the ex-wife, was admitted into evidence on consent, and the ex-wife testified to receiving this email from defendant. Viewing the foregoing evidence in a neutral light, and according deference to the credibility determinations made by the jury, we find that defendant's convictions under counts 3, 7 and 8 of the indictment are amply supported by the weight of the credible evidence (see People v Richardson, 155 A.D.3d at 1101-1103; People v Worthy, 109 A.D.3d 1140, 1141 [2013], lv denied 23 N.Y.3d 970');">23 N.Y.3d 970 [2014]).

         We find merit, however, in defendant's contention that County Court failed to ensure that he knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waived his constitutional right to counsel (see U.S. Const 6th Amend; NY Const, art I, § 6). The fundamental right to counsel carries with it the implicit, but antagonistic, "right to forego the advantages of counsel and represent oneself" (People v Arroyo, 98 N.Y.2d 101, 103 [2002]; see People v Henriquez, 3 N.Y.3d 210, 215 [2004]). However, "to best promote the orderly administration of justice and insulate convictions from claims of deprivation of fundamental fairness, the right to self-representation is necessarily a qualified right" (People v Arroyo, 98 N.Y.2d at 103; see People v McIntyre, 36 N.Y.2d 10, 16-17 [1974]). A defendant must knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waive the right to counsel before being permitted to proceed pro se (see People v Crampe, 17 N.Y.3d 469, 481 [2011], cert denied 565 U.S. 1261');">565 U.S. 1261 [2012]; People v Slaughter, 78 N.Y.2d 485, 491 [1991]; People v Sawyer, 57 N.Y.2d 12, 21 [1982], cert denied 459 U.S. 1178');">459 U.S. 1178 [1983]).

         To ascertain whether a defendant's waiver of the right to counsel is knowing, voluntary and intelligent, a trial court must engage in a sufficient "searching inquiry, " aimed at determining whether the defendant understands and "appreciate[s] the 'dangers and disadvantages'" of self-representation (People v White, 56 N.Y.2d 110, 117 [1982], quoting Faretta v California, 422 U.S. 806, 835 [1975]; see People v Slaughter, 78 N.Y.2d at 491; People v Kaltenbach, 60 N.Y.2d 797, 798-799 [1983]). Although the trial court need not conduct the required inquiry in a strict, formulaic manner, "it must accomplish the goals of adequately warning a defendant of the risks inherent in proceeding pro se, and apprising a defendant of the singular importance of the lawyer in the adversarial system of adjudication" (People v Smith, 92 N.Y.2d 516, 520 [1998]; see People v Crampe, 17 N.Y.3d at 481-482; People v Arroyo, 98 N.Y.2d at 103-104). The trial court must also elicit on the record any information that may bear on the defendant's ability to effectively waive the right to counsel, such as his or her "age, education, occupation [and] previous exposure to legal procedures" (People v Smith, 92 N.Y.2d at 520; see People v Crampe, 17 N.Y.3d at 482). The inquiry must both "test an accused's understanding of the waiver and... provide a reliable basis for appellate review" (People v Smith, 92 N.Y.2d at 520; see People v Providence, 2 N.Y.3d 579, 583 [2004]; People v Sawyer, 57 N.Y.2d at 21).

         County Court failed to conduct a sufficient searching inquiry on the record here. At arraignment, defendant unequivocally expressed his intention to forgo his right to counsel and to instead represent and defend himself. Despite defendant's clear expression of intent from the earliest possible opportunity, County Court made no immediate attempt, either at arraignment or subsequent pretrial proceedings, to conduct the requisite searching inquiry on the record. It was not until the first day of trial that County Court made any attempt to fulfill its obligation to determine whether defendant had knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently waived his right to counsel. At that time, County Court asked defendant a series of relevant questions relating to his background and pedigree, as well as his physical, mental and emotional capacity to represent himself. However, County Court's belated searching inquiry fell short; the court neither "tested defendant's understanding of choosing self-representation, " nor warned of "the 'risks inherent in proceeding pro se'" (People v Arroyo, 98 N.Y.2d at 104, quoting People v Smith, 92 N.Y.2d at 520). At no point in this record did the court address the dangers and disadvantages of self-representation or impress upon defendant the "singular importance" of being represented by counsel (People v Smith, 92 N.Y.2d at 520; see People v Arroyo, 98 N.Y.2d at 104). In contrast, at trial and prior to trial, County Court made various unwarranted laudatory comments about defendant's aptitude for self-representation, thereby giving defendant the probable impression that his decision to proceed without counsel was in his best interest. In fact, at several points in the record, defendant undermined any conclusion that his waiver of the right to counsel was knowing, voluntary and intelligent by demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of an attorney. For example, as a result of defendant's uninformed decision, neither he nor his standby counsel attended jury selection. [4]

         The absence of the requisite searching inquiry may be the inadvertent product of County Court's familiarity with defendant. However, County Court's history and prior dealings with defendant does not relieve it of its obligation to conduct - and create a record of - the required inquiry (see People v Termotto, 155 A.D.2d 965, 966 [1989], lv denied75 N.Y.2d 925');">75 N.Y.2d 925 [1990]), for this inquiry serves the vital purpose of ensuring that defendant knew "what [he was] doing" and made the choice to forgo counsel with his "'eyes open'" (People v Smith, 92 N.Y.2d at 520, quoting Faretta v California, 422 U.S. at 835). Moreover, neither County Court's statements regarding its prior experience with defendant, nor its laudatory comments regarding defendant's prior pro se performance, provide a reliable basis upon which we can conclude that defendant's waiver of the right to counsel was knowing, voluntary and intelligent (see generally People v Arroyo, 98 N.Y.2d at 104; People v Smith, 92 N.Y.2d at 520), particularly given defendant's statement that he had never before represented himself at a trial. Accordingly, in the absence of a sufficient searching inquiry, defendant's waiver of the right to counsel was ineffective and the judgment ...


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