People v. Alexander

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtROSENBLATT, J.
Citation97 N.Y.2d 482,769 N.E.2d 802,743 N.Y.S.2d 45
Decision Date21 March 2002

97 N.Y.2d 482
769 N.E.2d 802
743 N.Y.S.2d 45


Court of Appeals of the State of New York.

Argued February 6, 2002.

Decided March 21, 2002.

97 N.Y.2d 483
Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, Inc., Buffalo (Vincent F. Gugino, David C. Schopp and Barbara J. Davies of counsel), for appellant

Frank J. Clark, District Attorney, Buffalo (Raymond C. Herman and J. Michael Marion of counsel), for respondent.

Chief Judge KAYE and Judges LEVINE, CIPARICK, WESLEY and GRAFFEO concur with Judge ROSENBLATT; Judge SMITH dissents and votes to reverse in a separate opinion.



At any time before it imposes sentence, a court in its discrettion may permit a defendant to withdraw a guilty plea (see

97 N.Y.2d 484
CPL 220.60 [3]). On the facts before us, we conclude that Supreme Court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea, and we therefore affirm the order of the Appellate Division upholding defendant's conviction

Defendant was indicted for beating his girlfriend on separate occasions by kicking her in the face, punching her in the stomach, breaking her jaw and dragging her across a hardwood floor. Because an order of protection required defendant to stay away from the victim, the indictment included criminal contempt charges. Counseled by his attorney, defendant entered an Alford plea to criminal contempt in the first degree (Penal Law § 215.51 [b] [v]) in satisfaction of the indictment (see North Carolina v Alford, 400 US 25 [1970]).

While awaiting sentence, defendant moved to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming he was not competent when he entered it. The trial court ordered a psychiatric examination pursuant to Criminal Procedure Law article 730—a vehicle to determine whether a defendant is competent to stand trial. In their reports, both examining physicians concluded that defendant was fit to proceed. They stated that he required medication for his "personality disorder with cyclothymic and anti-social features," but that he was neither an "incapacitated person" nor was he suffering from psychosis or impaired cognition. Although the psychiatrists did not focus on defendant's mental condition as of the day he pleaded guilty, they indicated that he entered the guilty plea while "emotionally distraught."1 The trial court denied defendant's motion to withdraw his plea.

Renewing the motion at sentencing, defendant added that the victim no longer wished to proceed with the charges and that this constituted a change in circumstances such that the guilty plea was a "mistake." The defense contended that the

97 N.Y.2d 485
victim was a drug addict who "made up" the charges and regretted it. Defendant further stated that he was physically incapable of kicking the victim in the jaw. Supreme Court again denied defendant's motion. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, concluding that the record belied defendant's claim of incompetency. We agree

Trial judges are vested with discretion in deciding plea withdrawal motions because they are best able to determine whether a plea is entered voluntarily, knowingly and intelligently. It follows that a motion to withdraw a guilty plea will not be granted merely for the asking, for as we have observed in another context, a guilty plea generally "marks the end of a criminal case [and is] not a gateway to further litigation" (People v Taylor, 65 NY2d 1, 5 [1985]). The interest of finality requires no less (see People v Frederick, 45 NY2d 520, 525 [1978]).

With these principles in mind, we have on several occasions upheld trial court decisions denying motions to withdraw guilty pleas. For example, in People v Dixon (29 NY2d 55, 57 [1971]), we noted that "[a] defendant is not entitled to withdraw his guilty plea based on a subsequent unsupported claim of innocence, where the guilty plea was voluntarily made with the advice of counsel following an appraisal of all the relevant factors * * *." Similarly, in People v Feliciano (53 NY2d 645 [1981]), we held that notwithstanding the defendant's claims of innocence, illness and confusion, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendant's motion to withdraw his guilty plea.2

Nevertheless, we have recognized that there are instances in which denial of a motion to withdraw a guilty plea constitutes an abuse of discretion. In People v Englese (7 NY2d 83 [1959]) we held that the trial court erred in denying the defendant's motion where the indictment mislabeled a misdemeanor as a

97 N.Y.2d 486
felony. Moreover, in People v Nettles (30 NY2d 841, 842 [1972]) we determined that it was error not to allow the defendant to withdraw a guilty plea that was the result of a "mutual mistake of fact and law" and was further weakened by the defendant's serious illness and low level of education.

Here, we conclude that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying defendant's motion. The court was able firsthand to assess whether defendant was alert and knowledgeable enough to plead guilty voluntarily. Under oath defendant told the court that, after consulting with counsel, he understood the nature of the proceedings and that his guilty plea entailed a waiver of various rights. The court then asked defendant whether by tendering an Alford plea he was pleading guilty for fear of being convicted of a higher charge. Defendant said yes. There was not the slightest indication that defendant was uninformed, confused or incompetent.3

Defendant's protestations as to his incompetence, confusion and innocence ring hollow. Concededly, defendant had a history of mental illness for which he was taking medication. But even if (as he claims) he failed to take his medication on the day in question, we are unable to conclude on this record that the failure so stripped him of orientation or cognition that he lacked the capacity to plead guilty. Moreover, that a defendant is "emotionally distraught" when pleading guilty affords no basis to withdraw the plea (see People v Green, 75 NY2d 902 [1990])....

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