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Wednesday's NY Legal News Round Up

Here are some interesting New York legal news headlines from the past week:


Court of Appeals Allows Trial Court Broad Discretion On Evidentiary Decision

In People v. Young, 2006 Slip Op. 03261, the Court considered whether the trial court's "independent source" finding was incorrect as a matter of law and whether the trial court had abused its discretion by refusing to allow an expert to testify about factors that affected the reliability of eyewitness identifications.

In this case, the defendant was charged with Robbery and Burglary based upon allegations that he broke into a house while concealing most of his body and face underneath a blanket and a scarf.  One of the victims, Mrs. Sykes, failed to recognize the defendant in a photo array, but later picked him out of a line up after hearing his voice and viewing him, and also identified him at trial.  Also offered as proof of the defendant's guilt was evidence that binoculars and gloves missing from the Sykeses' cars were recovered from acquaintances of the defendant, one of whom testified that she'd received the binoculars from him.

At trial, the defendant sought to introduce the testimony of a psychology professor regarding the potential inaccuracies of eyewitness identification testimony.

The Court of Appeals first held that the trial court's "independent source" decision was correctly decided as an issue of fact  and the it correctly rejected the defense argument that as a matter of law:

(C)onsidering Mrs. Sykes's limited view of the robber, and the long lapse of time and the many intervening events — including the photo array and the lineup — between the crime and the independent source hearing, it was impossible to find by the requisite clear and convincing evidence that the lineup would not influence her in-court identification.

The Court deferred to the Appellate Division on the grounds that this was an issue of fact.  The decision that it was an issue of fact as opposed to one of law was made without any explanation, which I find troubling.   As I read it, had it been determined to be an issue of law, then the Court could have revisited the Appellate Division's ruling on this issue.  Accordingly, it would have been helpful if the Court had set forth the basis for its determination, since I'm not entirely convinced that it was an issue of fact.

The Court then moved onto the second issue.  The Court noted that:

(A) court's exercise of discretion in a case like this depends in large part on whether the "specialized knowledge" of the expert can give jurors more perspective than they get from their day-to-day experience, their common observation and their knowledge.  (Internal citations and quotations omitted).

The Court concluded that had the prosecution's case relied entirely upon an uncorroborated identification, it may have been an abuse of discretion for the trial court to refuse to allow the testimony, but since there was strong corroborating evidence in this case (the binoculars and gloves found with the defendant's acquaintances) the trial court's decision was within its discretion:

In reaching this conclusion, we consider two factors: the extent to which the research findings discussed by Brigham were relevant to Mrs. Sykes's identification of defendant; and the extent to which that identification was corroborated by other evidence. The first of these factors favors the admission of the testimony — so much so that, if the identification were not strongly corroborated, the exclusion of Brigham's testimony would be hard to justify. But the corroboration was strong enough for the trial court reasonably to conclude that the expert's testimony would be of minor importance...

It was reasonable, under the circumstances, for the trial court to conclude that Mrs. Sykes's identification was quite unlikely to be mistaken, and that Brigham's testimony would be an unnecessary distraction for the jury.

I'm not at all convinced that the identification was "strongly corroborated."  Arguably, the defendant's acquaintances were not exactly candidates for outstanding citizens of the year, and could have conceivably obtained the stolen items from another acquaintance of similar ilk.  That one "friend" testified to receiving the binoculars from the defendant is not convincing, given that people have been motivated to lie on the stand for any number of reasons, including revenge for having one's advances rejected by the accused,  in order to protect the true guilty party, or to avoid prosecution themselves.

As the Court concluded, the first factor strongly favored admission of the expert's testimony.  As a result, I disagree with the Court's determination that the trial court properly excluded his testimony, since the corroborating evidence was anything but strong, and the jury should have been allowed to hear and weigh the testimony.  The failure to allow the testimony improperly derailed any potential defense.

Eric, over Indignant Indigent, raised some interesting points regarding this decision in this post.


Monday NY Blawg Round Up

Here's your Memorial Day New York Blawg round up of interesting posts from the last week.  It was a another busy week, so there are lots of posts:

Second Opinions:

It's No-Fault of New York

New York Disabled Worker Blog

Second Circuit Sentencing Blog

The Sienko Law Office Blog

Second Circuit Blog

Indignant Indigent

New York Civil Law


Define That Term #109

Thursday's term was pendent jurisdiction, which is defined as:

n. in federal procedure, the policy that allows a federal court to decide a legal question normally tried in state courts because it is based on the same facts as a lawsuit which is under federal court jurisdiction. (It also may be spelled: pendant).

No one guessed.

Today's term is (flashback to Property class)

in fee simple.

No dictionaries, please.


He Fought the Man--And Won

I came across an interesting case today, Ahl v Howard, 2006 NY Slip Op 26192, that originated right here in Monroe County.  A fellow named Mr. Ahl most likely spent an awful lot of money to retain an attorney in order to file an Article 78 proceeeding against the City of Rochester. 

Presumably, Mr. Ahl was one of those people who felt that it was the principle that mattered, given that the only remedy that he sought was leave to appeal a conviction of either a parking ticket or municipal code violation without first paying the fine and penalty imposed by the hearing examiner.  But he got the last laugh.

The Court first performed the judicial equivalent of soundly swatting the City on the nose with a newspaper and concluded that the regulation enacted by the City that required payment of the fine and penalty prior to filing a Notice of Appeal was inconsistent with the the relevant provisions of the Vehicle and Traffic Law.  The Court then granted Mr. Ahl's motion and ordered the City of Rochester to pay for Mr. Ahl's costs and disbursements.  Unfortunately for Mr. Ahl, attorney's fees weren't mentioned.

But, you gotta hand it to him.  He fought the man and won.


Second Circuit Considers Whether Strip Search of Student Was Unreasonable

As reported here, in Phaneuf v. Fraikin, 04-4783-cv, the Second Circuit addressed the interesting issue of whether a strip search of a student for marijuana that was conducted by the student's mother at the behest of school officials was supported by reasonable suspicion.  The facts of this case were summarized in the article as follows:

The incident that sparked the lawsuit happened on June 7, 2002, as Plainville High School students were about to leave for their senior class picnic. School officials conducted a search of student bags and, in Ms. Phaneuf's purse, uncovered a pack of cigarettes--a violation of school policy.

Another student, Michele Cyr, also reported to physical education teacher Cindy Birdsall that she had heard Kelly telling others that she was planning to hide marijuana in her pants.

In reaching its decision, the Court considered the application of the Fourth Amendment "reasonableness" standard to searches of students:

(T)he accommodation of the privacy interests of schoolchildren with the substantial need of teachers and administrators for freedom to maintain order in the schools does not require strict adherence to the requirement that searches be based on probable cause to believe that the subject of the search has violated or is violating the law. Rather, the legality of a search of a student should depend simply on the reasonableness, under all the circumstances, of the search.

(A) two-part test (is required) to determine the reasonableness of a student search. First, the search must be “justified at its inception"....Second, the student strip search must be “reasonably related in scope to the circumstances which justified the interference in the first place.” (Internal citations and quotations omitted).

After considering the first part of the two-prong test,  the Second Circuit concluded that the search was not justified at its inception:

Here, school officials point to four factors they contend created the reasonable suspicion required to justify the search: (1) the tip from a fellow student, (2) Phaneuf’s past disciplinary problems, (3) the suspicious manner of her denial, and (4) the discovery of cigarettes in her purse. We conclude that these four factors—considered singly and together—were insufficient.

I'm inclined to agree.  This was an extremely invasive, humiliating search based largely upon the allegations of another student whose motivations were unknown.  While I recognize the important need for teachers and administrators maintain order, they went too far in this case.  A strip search was simply uncalled for.

I would be interested in learning of the District Court's decision on the issue of qulified immunity upon remand of the case.