New York Court of Appeals Opinion Discusses the Trial Penalty

A recent opinion from the New York Court of Appeals contains a very interesting discussion of the trial penalty.  In the case, People v. Martinez, Slip Opinion 08456 (NY Court of Appeals, Nov. 19, 2015), the defendant rejected a plea offer of 10 years probation.  After his conviction at trial, he was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison.  The defendant then appealed, arguing the trial sentence was "vindictive."  While the majority upheld the sentence, the dissent argued that the trial judge should be required to explain such a sentencing differential on the record to ensure the defendant is not being punished for exercising a constitutional right.  Excerpts from the majority and dissenting opinions are below.

From the majority opinion:
Under the Due Process Clause of the New York State Constitution, a presumption of vindictiveness applies where a defendant successfully appeals an initial conviction, and is retried, convicted, and given a greater sentence than that imposed after the initial conviction. . .

"[C]riminal defendants should not be penalized for exercising their right to appeal" (Young , 94 NY2d at 176). After a new trial, the sentencing court must give affirmative reasons "concerning identifiable conduct on the part of the defendant occurring after the time of the original sentencing proceeding" to justify a higher sentence (Van Pelt , 76 NY2d at 159 [quoting North Carolina v Pearce , 395 US 711, 715-716 [1969]).

In Van Pelt , the defendant successfully appealed his trial conviction and a different judge imposed a higher sentence after the defendant was convicted upon retrial. This Court held that the enhanced sentence "offend[ed] State constitutional due process protections" because the judge offered no change in circumstances "occurring subsequent to the first sentencing, sufficient to overcome the presumption of institutional 'vindictiveness'" (76 NY2d at 158).

In Miller , the defendant's original lenient sentence, which was vacated after a successful appeal from his conviction after a guilty plea, was negotiated in exchange for sparing the victim from testifying — a "legitimate and reasoned basis" for granting leniency, and a benefit the defendant relinquished when he proceeded to trial after his appeal (see 65 NY2d at 508-509).

By contrast, the same policy concerns are not implicated when a defendant rejects a plea offer, proceeds to trial for the first time, and is given a harsher sentence than the plea offer. "Given that the quid pro quo of the bargaining process will almost necessarily involve offers to moderate sentences that ordinarily would be greater, it is also to be anticipated that sentences handed out after trial may be more severe than those proposed in connection with a plea" (People v Pena , 50 NY2d 400, 412 [1980][internal citations omitted]). In Pena, this Court concluded that the defendant was not punished by the imposition of the lawful, but greater, sentence received after rejecting a lenient plea offer and proceeding to trial.
From the dissenting opinion:
In my view, an appearance of judicial vindictiveness arises when a trial judge is aware of an unsuccessful plea discussion and, after trial, the same judge sentences the defendant to a jail term that is significantly harsher from that offered in the plea. Regardless of how one feels about the plea offer or the ultimate sentence after trial, an explanation of the disparity is required. Without it, a conclusion that defendant is being punished for exercising his or her right to a trial is ineluctable and reflects badly on the court. Therefore, I dissent.

. . .

It goes without saying that plea bargaining is part of our criminal justice system (Bordenkircher v Hayes , 434 US 357 [1978]). And we have said that during the bargaining process, the State may encourage a guilty plea by offering certain benefits, such as reduced exposure to the potential maximum sentence otherwise available, notwithstanding the fact that this has the effect of discouraging a defendant's assertion of his right to a trial (see People v Pena , 50 NY2d 400 [1980]). It follows that the fact that a sentence imposed after trial is greater than that offered during a plea negotiation is no clear indication that the defendant is being punished for asserting his right to proceed to trial. "Given that the quid pro quo of the bargaining process will almost necessarily involve offers to moderate sentences that ordinarily would be greater, it is also to be anticipated that sentences handed out after trial may be more severe than those proposed in connection with a plea" (Pena , 50 NY2d at 412). However, it is equally true that if a defendant refuses to plead guilty and goes to trial, retaliation or vindictiveness may play no role in sentencing following a conviction (see Corbitt v New Jersey , 439 US 212 [1978]). The conventional concerns in sentencing, which include the considerations of deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution, and isolation, must be the factors weighed when sentence is imposed (see People v Suitte , 90 AD2d 80 [2d Dept 1982]).

The "presumption of vindictiveness" of a sentence arose out of the United States Supreme Court case North Carolina v Pearce (395 US 711 [1969]). There the defendant, Pearce, was convicted in a North Carolina court of assault with intent to rape and sentenced to serve 12 to 15 years in prison; in a companion case, the defendant, Rice, pleaded guilty to four charges of burglary and was sentenced in an Alabama court to serve a total of 10 years. After having served several years, Pearce was granted a new trial because a confession used against him was held to have been obtained in violation of his constitutional right not to be compelled to be a witness against himself; Rice's conviction was set aside because, although he was indigent, he had not been provided with a court-appointed lawyer at the time he made his guilty plea. Both were retried and again convicted. Rice's sentence was increased to 25 years, and no credit was given for time he had previously served; Pearce was sentenced to eight years which, when added to the time he had already served, amounted to a longer sentence than originally imposed. Because in neither case did the record contain any justification for the increased sentence, the United States Supreme Court reversed the sentences as being unconstitutionally vindictive.

This Court adopted the Pearce presumption in cases where a defendant is successful on appeal and after a retrial receives a much greater sentence than his original one (see People v Van Pelt , 76 NY2d 156 [1990]). The majority chooses to use the distinction between a retrial following a successful appeal and a mere offer followed by a trial to distinguish this case. But to me, this makes no sense. The issue is vindictiveness, not procedural routes.

New York appellate courts have routinely reduced sentences in cases in which the disparity between the plea offer and the imposed sentence was great. For example, in People v Brown (70 AD2d 505, 505-506 [1st Dept 1970]), the court reduced a sentence where there was a disparity between the plea offer of 5 to 10 years and imposed sentence of 8 to 24 years. The court found the sentence "create[d] the appearance that the defendant was being punished for proceeding to verdict, rather than receiving merely the sentence which his crime and record justified" (id .). In People v Cosme , (203 AD2d 375 [2d Dept 1994]), the court reduced a sentence to 15 years to life because of the disparity between plea offer of 8 years to life and imposed sentenced of 25 years to life. While those courts may have done so through their interest of justice jurisdiction, I suggest that this Court's authority - as a matter of law - can, has and should be used to require an explanation in cases such as the one before us.

The difference between the sentences in this case is glaring. A court cannot claim to be surprised by testimony in a rape case that has been pending before it since the time of its indictment. There is no showing in this record that the sexual assault, serious as it was, merited a choice between letting the alleged perpetrator walk the streets following a sentence of probation or twenty years in jail. An explanation, hopefully a reasonable one, is necessary. Had the court indicated the basis for the increased sentence, this court may have considered this information sufficient to render the sentence "non-vindictive." With a 10-20 fold increase in sentence, the sentencing court should "at a minimum state on the record the additional facts which emerged .. .. that changed the court's viewpoint on sentencing, and how those matters factored into the court's decision" (Longley v State , 902 So 2d 925 [Dist Ct. Florida, 2005]).

For these reasons, I would reverse the imposition of the sentence and remit the matter to the trial court for resentencing, this time with an explanation for the disparity, if any.
The entire case is available here.


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