People v. Conyers

Decision Date02 April 1981
Citation52 N.Y.2d 454,420 N.E.2d 933,438 N.Y.S.2d 741
Parties, 420 N.E.2d 933 The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Appellant, v. Thomas CONYERS, Respondent.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
OPINION OF THE COURT

GABRIELLI, Judge.

Defendant Thomas Conyers was tried before a jury and convicted of several criminal counts in connection with the armed robbery of Marion Dantzler and Grace Johnson. The Appellate Division, however, reversed the conviction after concluding that defendant had been deprived of his right to a fair trial (65 A.D.2d 437, 411 N.Y.S.2d 303). We affirmed the decision of the Appellate Division, in part because, in our view, defendant's right to due process of law had been violated by the District Attorney's use of his postarrest silence to impeach his testimony at trial (49 N.Y.2d 174, 424 N.Y.S.2d 402, 400 N.E.2d 342). The People then petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, seeking a further review of our determination upon Federal constitutional grounds.

While the People's petition was pending, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Jenkins v. Anderson, 447 U.S. 231, 100 S.Ct. 2124, 65 L.Ed.2d 86. In that case, the court held that the use of a defendant's prearrest silence for impeachment purposes does not offend any of the guarantees contained in the United States Constitution. Shortly after Jenkins was decided, the court granted the People's petition for certiorari in Conyers I, vacated our order and remanded the case to our court for further consideration in light of Jenkins (New York v. Conyers, 449 U.S. 809, 101 S.Ct. 56, 66 L.Ed.2d 12), presumably because our analysis in Conyers I touched upon some of the same constitutional issues that were considered in that case. Upon reconsideration, we now adhere to our prior ruling and hold that, absent circumstances not here present, our State rules of evidence preclude the use of a defendant's pretrial silence to impeach his trial testimony. Inasmuch as our present holding is founded upon familiar principles of State evidentiary law, we do not find it necessary to consider whether the use of a defendant's postarrest silence for impeachment purposes is permissible under the constitutional principles articulated in Jenkins or whether the due process clause of our State Constitution (N.Y. Const. art, I, § 6) precludes the use of such evidence to impeach a defendant's trial testimony.

The controversy in Conyers I arose out of the defendant's attempts to place an exculpatory version of events before the jury through his own trial testimony. In an effort to refute the testimony of the two alleged victims, Dantzler and Johnson, that defendant had robbed them at gunpoint after accosting them on the street and forcing them into a nearby apartment building, defendant took the witness stand and testified that he had merely been attempting to collect a gambling debt from Dantzler in the latter's apartment when Dantzler drew a gun. Defendant, according to his own testimony, managed to wrest the gun from Dantzler's control and escape from the apartment with the gun and a pouch containing the proceeds of his bet after he and his accomplice, Saunders, 1 subdued Dantzler and bound his hands. Dantzler, however, was somehow able to free himself from his bonds in time to pursue defendant and Saunders out onto the street. The ensuing chase was interrupted, according to defendant, when a police officer intervened and placed defendant and Saunders under arrest.

Seeking to portray defendant's version of events as a recent fabrication, the District Attorney, over timely objection by defense counsel, questioned defendant about his failure to explain the situation to the arresting officer immediately upon his arrest. Reference to defendant's postarrest silence was also made during the District Attorney's summation to the jury. It was these references to defendant's postarrest failure to speak that ultimately formed the basis of our ruling upholding the reversal of Conyers' conviction.

As is evident from our opinion in Conyers I, our decision in that case, although based upon constitutional grounds, was heavily influenced by our conviction that evidence of an individual's pretrial failure to speak when confronted by law enforcement officials is of extremely limited probative worth (People v. Conyers, 49 N.Y.2d 174, 181-182, 424 N.Y.S.2d 402, 400 N.E.2d 342, supra; accord Doyle v. Ohio, 426 U.S. 610, 617-618 n. 8, 96 S.Ct. 2240, 2244-45 & n. 8, 49 L.Ed.2d 91). As noted in our earlier decision, the individual's silence in such circumstances may simply be attributable to his awareness that he is under no obligation to speak or to the natural caution that arises from his knowledge that anything he says might later be used against him at trial (People v. Rutigliano, 261 N.Y. 103, 107, 184 N.E. 689; accord United States v. Hale, 422 U.S. 171, 176-177, 95 S.Ct. 2133, 2136-37, 45 L.Ed.2d 99). Alternatively, the individual may refrain from speaking because he believes that efforts to exonerate himself under the circumstances would be futile (People v. Dawson, 50 N.Y.2d 311, 322, 428 N.Y.S.2d 914, 406 N.E.2d 771; People v. Conyers, supra, at pp. 181-182, 424 N.Y.S.2d 402, 400 N.E.2d 342). Finally, it is a lamentable but undeniable fact of modern society that some of our citizens harbor a mistrust for law enforcement authority which leads them to shun contact with the police even when the avoidance of contact is not in their own best interest (see People v. Conyers, supra, at p. 182, 424 N.Y.S.2d 402, 400 N.E.2d 342). Such individuals may refrain from speaking to law enforcement officials not because they are guilty of some crime, but rather because they are simply fearful of coming into contact with those whom they regard as antagonists. In short, although a defendant's failure to come forward with an exculpatory version of events prior to trial may reflect negatively upon the veracity of his trial testimony, his prior silence also may be attributable to a variety of innocent circumstances that are completely unrelated to the truth or falsity of his testimony. Accordingly, evidence of a defendant's pretrial silence must be regarded as having minimal probative significance and as having a correspondingly low potential for advancing the truth-finding process even when offered solely for purposes of impeachment.

On the other hand, the risk of prejudice is substantial whenever the prosecution attempts to impeach a defendant's trial testimony by questioning him about his prior failure to come forward with an exculpatory version of events. Jurors, who are not necessarily sensitive to the wide variety of alternative explanations for a defendant's pretrial silence, may be prone to construe such silence as an admission and, as a consequence, may draw an unwarranted inference of guilt. Because evidence of a defendant's pretrial silence may have a disproportionate impact upon the minds of the jurors and because the potential for prejudice inherent in such evidence outweighs its marginal probative worth, we conclude that the use of such evidence for impeachment purposes cannot be justified in the absence of unusual circumstances (accord United States v. Hale, 422 U.S. 171, 95 S.Ct. 2133, 45 L.Ed.2d 99, supra; cf. People v. Rothschild, 35 N.Y.2d 355, 361 N.Y.S.2d 901, 320 N.E.2d 639). 2

We note that our decision today to curtail the use of a particular category of evidence on the ground that its potential for prejudice outweighs its probative worth is far from unprecedented in our case law. In People v. Molineux, 168 N.Y. 264, 61 N.E. 286, for example, we held that evidence of a defendant's prior criminal acts may not be used as part of the People's direct case to establish the defendant's propensity to commit the crime charged. Although we recognized that such evidence is "marginally relevant to the question of the accused's guilt", we concluded that it should be excluded as a matter of judicial policy because "its probative value is * * * outweighed by its potential for prejudice" (People v. Santarelli, 49 N.Y.2d 241, 247, 425 N.Y.S.2d 77, 401 N.E.2d 199; accord People v. Allweiss, 48 N.Y.2d 40, 46, 421 N.Y.S.2d 341, 396 N.E.2d 735). Similarly, we held in People v. Sandoval, 34 N.Y.2d...

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