People v. Nixon

CourtNew York Court of Appeals
Citation287 N.Y.S.2d 659,21 N.Y.2d 338
Parties, 234 N.E.2d 687 The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Robert NIXON, Appellant. The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Clifford N. FOOKS, Appellant. The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Donald LANG, Appellant. The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Joyce ROBINSON, Appellant. The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Carl TODZIA, Appellant. The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Jacob SALONE, also known as Jacob Solome, Appellant.
Decision Date29 December 1967

Martin Balsam, New York City, for appellant in the first above-entitled action.

Isidore Dollinger, Dist. Atty. (Roy Broudny, New York City, of Kiedeckel, New York City, of counsel), for respondent in the first above-entitled action.

James P. Shea, New York City, for appellant in the second above-entitled action.

William Cahn, Dist. Atty. (Donald Paul De Riggi, Mineola, of counsel), for respondent in the second above-entitled action.

William E. Hellerstein, Kalman Finkel and Anthony F. Marra, New York City, for appellant in the third above-entitled action.

Isidore Dollinger, Dist. Atty. (Roy Broudny, New York City, of counsel), for respondent in the third above-entitled action.

William E. Hellerstein and Anthony F. Marra, New York City, for appellant in the fourth above-entitled action.

Isidore Dollinger, Dist. Atty. (Arnold Kiedeckel, New York City, of counsel), for respondent in the fourth above-entitled action.

Abraham Ziegler, for appellant in the fifth above-entitled action.

Frank A. Gualtieri, Dist. Atty. (Lucien Ali, Syracuse, of counsel), for respondent in the fifth above-entitled action.

Nathan Z. Dershowitz and Anthony F. Marra, New York City, for appellant in the sixth above-entitled action.

Thomas J. Mackell, Dist. Atty. (Sidney Baumgarten, Far Rockaway, of counsel), for respondent in the sixth above-entitled action.

BREITEL, Judge.

These six criminal cases involve, in one fashion or another, the taking of a plea of guilty to a lesser crime than that charged in the indictment. Questions are raised whether the pleading court has an obligation in every case to inquire of the defendant concerning his guilt and the propriety of the plea. Also at issue are the obligations of the court when the defendant on sentence interposes assertions affecting his guilt or the propriety of the earlier plea.

Thus far this court has made it clear that if, in pleading guilty, a defendant has cast doubt upon his guilt, he must be permitted to withdraw his plea and shall not be permitted to plead guilty under such circumstances until the court ascertains that the defendant is aware of what he is doing (People v. Serrano, 15 N.Y.2d 304, 258 N.Y.S.2d 386, 206 N.E.2d 330). More recently, this court has made it equally clear that an uncounseled defendant, in obviously distressed circumstances and, particularly, charged with a nonpredatory crime, must not be permitted to waive counsel and plead guilty without the court's first ascertaining that defendant understands the consequences of the waiver and has indeed committed a criminal act (People v. Seaton, 19 N.Y.2d 404, 280 N.Y.S.2d 370, 227 N.E.2d 294). In the latter case, the pleading court's responsibility was described as a heavy one, and the proceeding was remanded although defendant had never moved to withdraw her plea (cf. People v. Nicholson, 19 N.Y.2d 983, 281 N.Y.S.2d 528, 228 N.E.2d 696).

This year a committee of the American Bar Association Project on Minimum Standards for Criminal Justice recommended in a tentative draft that no plea of guilty should be allowed except on inquiry by the pleading court to determine that the defendant understands the nature of the charge. The court must advise the defendant that by pleading guilty he thereby waives his right to a jury trial. The defendant must also be advised of the various penal sanctions to which he, in particular, is made subject by his plea. In addition, the court should ascertain the voluntariness of the plea and, before imposing sentence, should determine whether there is a factual basis for the plea. (American Bar Association Project on Minimum Standards for Criminal Justice, Standards Relating to Pleas of Guilty, Tent. Draft (Feb., 1967), pp. 7--8). These and other standards are discussed in the draft, without definitive suggestion that the requirements be imposed by statute, formal court rule, or decisional doctrine. Such standards as already exist have been propounded in all of these ways.

The recently amended rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure provides that 'the court may refuse to accept a plea of guilty, and shall not accept such plea * * * without first addressing the defendant personally and determining that the plea is made voluntarily with understanding of the nature of the charge and the consequences of the plea * * * The court shall not enter a judgment upon a plea of guilty unless it is satisfied that there is a factual basis for the plea.'

These pronouncements appear to state obviously desirable standards. Perhaps they should be followed generally where circumstances allow and, certainly, whenever the circumstances suggest that their omission would lead to possible injustice. The questions now before this court are whether the standards should be universally required and, if so, whether the court or the Legislature is the proper engine for their promulgation. Also involved, of course, is the question whether there are or may be circumstances in which some of the standards are not practicable or desirable. Before discussing these questions further it is appropriate to consider the concrete cases at hand for the light they cast on the variety of circumstances which arise, always a desirable and traditional method to follow.

In People v. Nixon, defendant appeals from his conviction in 1965 for manslaughter in the second degree and a sentence of from 7 1/2 to 16 years' imprisonment based on his plea of guilty. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the conviction. Defendant had been charged with murder in the first degree. He was represented by counsel. Defendant had concededly knifed the decedent in an incident involving his girl friend. At the time of the plea the prosecutor described the offense in detail. Defendant answered the court's question that the statement was true and that his readiness to plead guilty to the lesser offense was voluntary. On sentence, however, defendant stated to the court that he had not been the attacker but had been the one attacked. The court promptly asked him if he wished to withdraw his plea. One of defendant's lawyers proceeded to move to withdraw the plea, but another asked for a recess saying that defendant was confused. On the second call, defendant stated without qualification that he had no legal cause why judgment should not be imposed upon him and admitted that he had been convicted previously of robbery in the first degree. He was thereupon sentenced as a second felony offender. The argument on appeal is that the court never questioned defendant about the factual basis for the plea even after defendant, on sentence, indicated that he might have a defense.

In People v. Fooks, defendant appeals from his conviction in 1965 for attempted burglary in the third degree and a sentence to the reformatory for up to 5 years based on his plea of guilty. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the conviction. Defendant had been charged with burglary in the third degree and grand larceny in the second degree. He was represented by counsel. On tender of the plea, the pleading court inquired of the defendant only if he confirmd the statements by the lawyers that no promises had been made to procure the plea. The court warned defendant that he might be subject to additional penalties. On sentence defendant said he had no cause why judgment should not be pronounced, and the court averted at length to the bad record of this 20-year-old man. There is no claim of innocence or facts in mitigation, and the only argument on appeal is that the court was obliged to catechize the defendant about the underlying facts of the alleged crime.

In People v. Lang defendant appeals from his conviction in 1966 for possession of a hypodermic needle and a dangerous weapon for which he received consecutive sentences of 6 months on each charge. The Appellate Term affirmed the conviction, one Justice dissenting. Defendant had been charged with possession of narcotic drugs, narcotic instruments, burglar's tools, and a dangerous weapon. He was represented by counsel. A motion to suppress physical evidence was denied, and the charge of possession of narcotic drugs was dismissed on the prosecutor's motion for lack of evidence. After a brief bench conference with the lawyers, the plea was offered and taken without any inquiry. On sentence, defendant asked to be heard, stated that he had no money, said he did not know why he had pleaded guilty, and asked the court to defend and protect his rights and appeal the case for him. On questioning, he admitted having 14 automobile keys, but doubted if the knife he possessed based a crime under section 1897 of the Penal Law, and stated that he was certain he was not guilty of the narcotics instrument offense, referring to that statute also by section number. The court, a little later in the proceedings, told him there was no appeal and imposed the sentence.

In People v. Robinson defendant appeals from her conviction in 1965 for robbery in the first degree and a sentence of from 10 to 12 years' imprisonment based on her plea of guilty. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed the conviction. Defendant had been charged in three indictments, one for murder in the first degree, and two for robbery in the first degree, with related crimes included in the robbery indictments. She was represented by counsel. Defenda...

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