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The Habeas Citebook Ineffective Counsel

New York Court of Appeals Orders Resentencing Because Trial Court Relied on Testimony from Improperly Unsealed Record

The New York Court of Appeals ordered that the defendant (not identified by name) be resentenced because the trial court had imposed an enhanced sentence based on testimony from the improperly unsealed record of a trial on another criminal charge that had resulted in an acquittal.

Defendant pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance in exchange for a four-year prison term to be followed by three years of supervision. The trial court adjourned sentencing and conditioned the promised sentence on defendant “stay[ing] out of trouble.” But before the sentence was imposed, defendant was tried for a crime allegedly committed after he had entered his guilty plea. A jury acquitted defendant of the new charge, and the record was sealed in accordance with CPL 160.50. The prosecutor then moved to have the record unsealed, arguing to the court that had he accepted the guilty plea that the People would be requesting an enhanced sentence on the criminal possession conviction because defendant’s testimony in the other case revealed he had violated the pre-sentence condition to “stay out of trouble.”

The trial court granted the prosecutor’s motion and, relying on defendant’s testimony from the unsealed record, determined that defendant had engaged in criminal conduct. The court then sentenced defendant to the maximum nine-year term of imprisonment in lieu of the promised four years.

On appeal, the Appellate Division determined that the trial court had violated CPL 160.50, but the violation did not require resentencing. The Court of Appeals granted defendant leave to appeal.

The Court of Appeals observed that “CPL 160.50(1) provides, in relevant part: ‘Upon the termination of a criminal action or proceeding against a person in favor of such person ... unless the district attorney upon motion with not less than five days’ notice to such person ... demonstrates to the satisfaction of the court that the interests of justice require otherwise, ... the record of such action or proceeding shall be sealed.’” The purpose of the statute is that, consistent with the presumption of innocence, no person should suffer adverse consequences from an accusation that wasn’t proven. People v. Patterson, 587 N.E.2d 255 (N.Y. 1991).

While the statute provides six exceptions to the sealing of a record from a proceeding that terminated in an accused’s favor, the Court had previously ruled that a trial court is not authorized by the statute “to make sealed records available to a prosecutor for purposes of making sentencing recommendations.” Matter of Katherine B. v. Cataldo, 833 N.E.2d 698 (N.Y. 2005). The prosecutor may, in the interests of justice, seek to stay the sealing of records, but the prosecutor cannot move to have sealed records unsealed. Id. And when a sentencing court relies on information obtained in violation of CPL 160.50, the only remedy “is to remit for resentencing without consideration of the trial testimony obtained in violation of the sealing statute.” Matter of Alonzo M. v. New York City Department of Probation, 532 N.E.2d 1254 (N.Y. 1988).

Accordingly, the Court reversed the order of the Appellate Division and remitted the case to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with the Court’s opinion. See: People v. Anonymous, 2020 N.Y. LEXIS 160 (2020).  

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