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New York Court of Appeals: Jury Trial Right Attaches to Deportable Crimes Punishable by Less Than Six Months in Jail

by David Reutter

As a matter of first impression, the Court of Appeals of New York ruled that a noncitizen defendant charged with state crimes that carry a maximum penalty of less than six months in jail but subject him or her to deportation is entitled to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. 

The appeal by Saylor Suazo came after a bench trial that resulted in convictions for Class B misdemeanors of attempted assault in the third degree, attempted criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation, menacing in the third degree, and attempted criminal contempt in the second degree. Each of those charges were reduced immediately before trial from Class A misdemeanors, which carry more than six months imprisonment, to Class B misdemeanors that carry three months imprisonment by amending the charges to attempts.

The distinction was important because the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) has held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial does not apply to “so-called petty offenses.” Baldwin v. New York, 399 U.S. 66 (1970). The clear rule is that “no offense can be deemed petty for purposes of the right to trial by jury where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized.” Id. 

Suazo argued in the trial court that he had a right to a jury trial, despite facing a maximum term of imprisonment of less than six months, because he was a noncitizen charged with deportable offenses, so the possibility of deportation upon conviction rendered the Class B misdemeanors sufficiently serious to mandate a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. The trial court denied the motion, and the Appellate Division affirmed, holding that deportation is a collateral consequence of conviction that does not trigger the Sixth Amendment. Suazo appealed. 

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by pointing out that SCOTUS “does not refer solely to the maximum prison term authorized for a particular offense.” Courts must “examine whether the length of the authorized prison term or the seriousness of other punishment is enough in itself to require a jury trial.” Blanton v. North Las Vegas, 489 U.S. 538 (1989). The Court of Appeals added that, under Blanton, “it is the defendant’s burden to overcome the presumption that the crime charged is petty and establish a Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.”  

The Court of Appeals observed that the Immigration and Nationality Act makes it practically inevitable that a noncitizen will be forcibly removed from the country if convicted of a “crime of moral turpitude” in certain circumstances; an “aggravated felony”; most controlled substance offenses; various firearm offenses; crimes of domestic violence, stalking, or violation of a protection order; and crimes against children.

Deportation was recognized in Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010), as “drastic measure,” and in Sessions v. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. 1204 (2018), SCOTUS reiterated that “deportation is a particularly severe penalty,” which may be of greater concern to a convicted alien than any potential jail sentence.” Similarly, the Court of Appeals found the loss of liberty inherent in deportation “is frequently more injurious to noncitizen defendants than six months of imprisonment or less.”

The People argued that deportation is a federally imposed penalty, making it technically collateral. However, the Padilla Court explained that “deportation is nevertheless intimately related to the criminal process,” and “it [is] most difficult to divorce the penalty from the conviction in the deportation context.” While deportation is technically collateral, the Court of Appeals said “it is undoubtedly a severe statutory penalty that flows from the federal government as the result of a state criminal conviction.” As such, the Court rejected the People’s argument.

The Court instructed that “the Sixth Amendment mandates a jury trial in the ‘rare situation’ where a legislature attaches a sufficiently ‘onerous’ penalty to an offense, whether that penalty is imposed by the state or national legislature.” The Court concluded that deportation constitutes a sufficiently severe penalty to trigger the right to a jury trial. According to the Court, its ruling applies to “the narrow context of cases involving CPL 340.40-mandated nonjury trials of lesser misdemeanors….” 

Since the criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation charge qualifies as a deportable offense, it constitutes a serious offense, and thus the “trial court’s refusal to grant defendant’s request for a jury trial violated his Sixth Amendment right.” 

Accordingly, the Court reversed the decisions below and ordered a new trial. See: People v. Suazo, 118 N.E.3d 168 (N.Y. 2018). 

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