People v. Suazo, 112718 NYCOA, 2018-08056

Docket Nº:2018-08056
Opinion Judge:STEIN, J.
Party Name:The People & c., Respondent, v. Saylor Suazo, Appellant.
Attorney:Mark W. Zeno, for appellant. Noah J. Chamoy, for respondent. The Bronx Defenders, et al., amici curiae.
Judge Panel:GARCIA, J. (dissenting): WILSON, J. (dissenting): Chief Judge DiFiore and Judges Rivera, Fahey and Feinman concur. Judge Garcia dissents and votes to affirm in an opinion.
Case Date:November 27, 2018
Court:New York Court of Appeals

The People & c., Respondent,


Saylor Suazo, Appellant.

No. 2018-08056

New York Court of Appeals

November 27, 2018

Mark W. Zeno, for appellant.

Noah J. Chamoy, for respondent.

The Bronx Defenders, et al., amici curiae.


The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution guarantees that a defendant will be judged by a jury of peers if charged with a serious crime. Today, as a matter of first impression, we hold that a noncitizen defendant who demonstrates that a charged crime carries the potential penalty of deportation i.e. removal from the country is entitled to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment.


Defendant Saylor Suazo was charged with assault in the third degree, unlawful imprisonment in the second degree, criminal obstruction of breathing or blood circulation, endangering the welfare of a child, menacing, and harassment in the second degree. As detailed in the accusatory instrument, the charges arose from an incident during which defendant grabbed the mother of his children, threw her to the floor, placed his hands around her neck and squeezed thereby obstructing her breathing and then struck her numerous times in the head and neck with his fist. A month later, defendant was also charged with criminal contempt in the second degree due to his violations of an order of protection that directed him to refrain from any communication or contact with the victim.

Immediately before the start of trial on the consolidated charges, the People moved, in open court, to reduce the class A misdemeanor charges to attempt crimes. As reduced, the charges against defendant constituted class B misdemeanor crimes and lower grade offenses, with the misdemeanors punishable by a maximum authorized sentence of three months in jail; consequently, as the criminal action was commenced in New York City, the offenses were triable without a jury pursuant to CPL 340.40. Supreme Court refused to entertain defendant's argument in opposition to the reduction, granted the People's motion, and commenced the bench trial.

Defendant persisted and submitted a written motion asserting his right to a jury trial. In support of his motion, defendant asserted that he was a noncitizen charged with deportable offenses, and he argued that the possibility of deportation upon conviction rendered the class B misdemeanors sufficiently serious to mandate a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment. The People did not dispute defendant's assertions that he was a noncitizen or that the charges against him included deportable offenses. Instead, the People opposed defendant's motion on the sole ground that deportation is a collateral consequence arising out of federal law that does not constitute a criminal penalty for purposes of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.

Supreme Court effectively denied defendant's motion and, following a bench trial, found defendant guilty 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. Upon defendant's appeal, the Appellate Division affirmed the judgment and held that deportation is a collateral consequence of conviction and, as such, does not trigger the Sixth Amendment guarantee of a jury trial (146 A.D.3d 423 [1st Dept 2017]). A Judge of this Court granted defendant leave to appeal (29 N.Y.3d 1087 [2017]), and we now reverse.


The Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that, "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed." This constitutional guarantee of the right to a jury trial "reflect[s] a profound judgment about the way in which law should be enforced and justice administered" (Duncan v Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 155 [1968]). More specifically, the mandate embodies "a fundamental decision about the exercise of official power a reluctance to entrust plenary powers over the life and liberty of the citizen to one judge or to a group of judges," and an "insistence upon community participation in the determination of guilt or innocence" due to fears of unchecked power (id. at 156). In this regard, the right to a jury trial is intended to ward against "oppression by the Government" (id. at 155) by interposing between the defendant and the accuser a jury of laypeople who "are less likely to function or appear as but another arm of the Government" (Baldwin v New York, 399 U.S. 66, 72 [1970]).

Although the Federal Constitution speaks in absolute terms, it is well settled that the right to a jury trial "does not extend to every criminal proceeding" (District of Columbia v Clawans, 300 U.S. 617, 624 [1937]; see Lewis v United States, 518 U.S. 322, 325 [1996]). "At the time of the adoption of the Constitution[, ] there were numerous offenses, commonly described as petty,' which were tried summarily without a jury" (Clawans, 300 U.S. at 624). Thus, while the Sixth Amendment "requires that defendants accused of serious crimes be afforded the right to trial by jury[, ] so-called petty offenses' may be tried without a jury" (Baldwin, 399 U.S. at 68).

As explained by the United States Supreme Court, to determine whether an offense is serious or petty, "courts at one time looked to the nature of the offense and whether it was triable by a jury at common law" (Lewis, 518 U.S. at 325). Eventually, "[s]uch determinations became difficult, because many statutory offenses lack common-law antecedents. Therefore, more recently, [courts] have instead sought objective indications of the seriousness with which society regards the offense'" (id. at 325-326 [internal citation omitted], quoting Frank v United States, 395 U.S. 147, 148 [1969]; see Blanton v North Las Vegas, 489 U.S. 538, 541 [1989]). The Supreme Court has since instructed that the "most relevant criteria" for evaluating the seriousness of an offense is "the severity of the maximum authorized penalty" (Baldwin, 399 U.S. at 68; see Blanton, 489 U.S. at 541; Duncan, 391 U.S. at 159-160). This is because, "[i]n fixing the maximum penalty for a crime, a legislature include[s] within the definition of the crime itself a judgment about the seriousness of the offense'" (Blanton, 489 U.S. at 541, quoting Frank, 395 U.S. at 149), and "[t]he penalty authorized by the law of the locality may be taken as a gauge of its social and ethical judgments'" (Duncan, 391 U.S. at 160, quoting Clawans, 300 U.S. at 628).

Consistent with the Supreme Court's instruction that the maximum potential penalty for a particular offense must be the crux of the analysis as to whether a right to a jury trial exists, significant attention has been paid to the maximum length of incarceration associated with the crime in question. In that regard, the Supreme Court has articulated at least one clear rule based on the potential length of incarceration namely, "no offense can be deemed petty' for purposes of the right to trial by jury where imprisonment for more than six months is authorized" (Baldwin, 399 U.S. at 69) because the possibility of such a penalty being imposed is "sufficiently severe by itself to take the offense out of the category of petty'" and place it within the scope of the Sixth Amendment's jury trial protections (id. at 69 n 6; see Blanton, 489 U.S. at 542). Thus, "a defendant is entitled to a jury trial whenever the offense charged carries a maximum authorized prison term of greater than six months" (Blanton, 489 U.S. at 542). Conversely, for offenses punishable by six months' imprisonment or less, the Court has concluded that "the disadvantages of such a sentence, onerous though they may be, may be outweighed by the benefits that result from speedy and inexpensive nonjury adjudications'" (Blanton, 489 U.S. at 543, quoting Baldwin, 399 U.S. at 73). Thus, it is "appropriate to presume for purposes of the Sixth Amendment that society views such an offense as petty'" (Blanton, 489 U.S. at 543; United States v Nachtigal, 507 U.S. 1, 3, [1993]).

Despite the significance placed on the maximum authorized length of incarceration, the Supreme Court has clarified that the term "penalty," as relevant to the Sixth Amendment jury trial analysis, "do[es] not refer solely to the maximum prison term authorized for a particular offense" (Blanton, 489 U.S. at 542). "A legislature's view of the seriousness of an offense also is reflected in the other penalties that it attaches to the offense" (id.). Thus, 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'" (id., quoting Duncan, 391 U.S. at 161).

To be sure, primary emphasis remains on the...

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