People v. Williams

Decision Date05 April 2016
Docket NumberNo. 36.,36.
Citation27 N.Y.3d 212,32 N.Y.S.3d 17,51 N.E.3d 528,2016 N.Y. Slip Op. 02551
Parties The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Appellant, v. Christian WILLIAMS, Respondent.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., District Attorney, New York City (Beth Fisch Cohen and Christopher P. Marinelli of counsel), for appellant.

The Legal Aid Society, New York City (Anita Aboagye–Agyeman of counsel), and Richard M. Greenberg, Office of the Appellate Defender, New York City (Alexandra Keeling of counsel), for respondent.



, J.

When a defendant pleads guilty to a crime, he or she generally must move to withdraw the plea or otherwise object to its entry prior to the imposition of sentence to preserve a challenge to the validity of the plea for appellate review (see People v. Toxey, 86 N.Y.2d 725, 726, 631 N.Y.S.2d 119, 655 N.E.2d 160 [1995]

; People v. Claudio, 64 N.Y.2d 858, 858–859, 487 N.Y.S.2d 318, 476 N.E.2d 644 [1985] ). In a line of cases beginning with People v. Lopez, 71 N.Y.2d 662, 529 N.Y.S.2d 465, 525 N.E.2d 5 (1988), however, we clarified the existence of a narrow exception to the preservation requirement in rare cases where the defendant lacks a reasonable opportunity to object to a fundamental defect in the plea which is clear on the face of the record and to which “the court's attention should have been instantly drawn,” such that “the salutary purpose of the preservation rule is ... not jeopardized” (id. at 666, 529 N.Y.S.2d 465, 525 N.E.2d 5 ). On this appeal, we must apply the foregoing principles to determine whether, prior to the final imposition of his sentence, defendant had a practical ability to challenge the validity of his guilty plea on the theory that it was induced by the promise of an unlawful sentence, for such an ability to object would preclude the application of the exception to the preservation rule delineated in Lopez and its progeny. On the record before us, we hold that defendant had a reasonable opportunity to attack the legality of his guilty plea in the court of first instance on the same grounds now advanced on appeal. Because defendant did not take advantage of that opportunity, he failed to preserve his current claim for appellate review.


After his arrest and indictment on drug sale charges, defendant Christian Williams entered into a negotiated plea bargain with the People. Specifically, at a scheduled court proceeding, defense counsel announced that the People had offered a recommended sentence of three years in prison in exchange for defendant's guilty plea to criminal sale of a controlled substance in the third degree (see Penal Law § 220.39[1]

). The court asked defense counsel [w]hat period of prosecution [sic] had been negotiated, and counsel answered, “It was the minimum, I believe.” When the court asked [w]hy would it be the minimum,” the prosecutor replied, “On my note it indicates that [,] for [defendant], the post-release supervision time would be two years post-release supervision.” Relying largely on the People's apparent belief in the appropriateness of their proposed disposition, the court agreed to offer defendant a three-year prison term and a two-year period of postrelease supervision in exchange for his guilty plea.

In the course of the ensuing plea colloquy, the court told defendant about the sentence to be imposed, saying:

“As you came into court today, you were charged with the crime to which you pled guilty but I hear that there is a predicate felony statement, so you theoretically could have received up to 12 years, is it?
“I lost my sentence chart when we transferred courtrooms so I don't know. I think it is up to 12 years.
“Let's assume it is up to 12 years based on your prior criminal history.
“You've been given a chance to plead guilty and you are going to receive a three-year sentence with two years post-release supervision.
“Do you understand that?”

Defendant answered, “Yes.” The court immediately asked whether defendant “had a chance to speak with” and had, “in fact, spoken with [defense counsel] today and on other days” about his case, such that counsel had “explained to [defendant] various legal rights and [his] options with regard to this case.” Defendant responded in the affirmative.

Later in the plea proceeding, the court delivered the following warning to defendant:

Listen carefully.
Predicate felony conviction today.
“If there is a third felony conviction, in theory at least, that would be your third felony conviction and ... three felony convictions in theory is a big deal problem for anybody in your position.
“Do you understand that?”(Emphasis added.)

Defendant indicated that he understood.

Next, the court informed defendant that, to receive a three-year prison term, he had to meet certain conditions during the period of his release prior to sentencing. Specifically, the court told defendant that he had to truthfully discuss his case with the Department of Probation, refrain from committing new crimes and return to court for sentencing. The court further stated:

“Pay attention....
“If you comply with those three conditions....
“then you are guaranteed the three years with the two years post-release supervision.
“If you violate any of those conditions, I'll decide what's the nature of the violation, whether it is true or not and if I decide that you violated one of the conditions, I don't have to give you the three years with the two years. I might, but I don't have to, and I could theoretically sentence you up to 12 years.
“If you violate any of three conditions and I decide that you did violate one of those conditions or all of them or some of them, you will not get your plea back, your plea will remain and I'll do what I think is appropriate having decided the validity of the supposed violation.”

Defendant responded that he understood this explanation of the conditions of the plea and the consequences of failing to fulfill them.

The court proceeded to arraign defendant on a predicate felony statement which was filed by the People and alleged that he had a predicate felony conviction for attempted criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree. Defendant declined to challenge the validity of that predicate felony conviction, and he was adjudicated a second felony offender previously convicted of a violent felony. The court declared, He's a violent predicate which will put him in the range which will make the sentence that I promised a legal sentence.” The court ordered an adjournment of approximately two months for fulfillment of the plea conditions and sentencing.

Significantly, though, contrary to the court's statement, while a three-year prison term is within the lawful sentencing range for a second felony drug offender convicted of third-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance (see Penal Law § 70.70[3][b][i]

), it was not a sentence lawfully available to defendant in light of his distinct predicate status. Rather, because defendant was a second felony drug offender previously convicted of a violent felony, he faced a statutory sentencing range of 6 to 15 years in prison on his third-degree drug sale conviction (see Penal Law § 70.70[4][b][i] ). But, the court was not informed of this issue and never indicated that it learned of the potential problem on its own.

Apparently, at some point after the plea proceeding, defendant was arrested for marijuana and trespass offenses. About three weeks after the entry of defendant's plea, the court held a hearing pursuant to People v. Outley, 80 N.Y.2d 702, 594 N.Y.S.2d 683, 610 N.E.2d 356 (1993)

to determine whether defendant had violated the terms of his plea agreement. At the hearing, a police officer testified that the officer had arrested defendant upon seeing him smoking marijuana in the lobby of a public housing building. In response to that testimony, defendant presented a notarized letter from his aunt, who alleged that she was a resident of the building at issue and that defendant had been in her apartment at the time of the arrest. The court provided the defense with a short recess to enable the aunt to testify at the hearing, but at the end of the recess, defense counsel notified the court that the defense would rest without calling defendant's aunt to the stand. After hearing the parties' arguments, the court found that defendant had violated the terms of the plea by engaging in misconduct constituting criminal possession of marihuana in the fifth degree (see Penal Law § 221.10[1] ).

About a month later on the date of the scheduled sentencing proceeding, the parties appeared in court and discussed the People's written submissions in support of enhancing defendant's sentence. Defense counsel informed the court that he had not reviewed those submissions. The court said, [O]bviously the sentence is going to be enhanced. I announced that the last time.” Nonetheless, the court adjourned the case so that the court and counsel could have more time to review the People's arguments.

Two weeks later, the parties appeared before the court for sentencing. Early in the proceeding, the court reiterated that defendant had violated the terms of his plea deal, and the court noted that, based on the People's written submissions, it appeared that defendant had tried to arrange for the presentation of false evidence of an alibi in connection with his postplea marijuana offense. After the prosecutor's argument in favor of an enhanced sentence, the court told defendant and defense counsel that they could “say anything [they] want[ed] on the issue of the appropriate sentence within the range that the law allows, and the circumstances—.” Counsel interrupted and commenced his argument in opposition to the enhancement of defendant's sentence, positing that the evidence at the Outley hearing had not revealed misconduct that warranted an enhanced sentence. Defendant declined to make any statement about the proposed sentence enhancement, and after a brief exchange...

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2 cases
  • People v. Williams
    • United States
    • New York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
    • April 5, 2016
  • People v. Martin
    • United States
    • New York Supreme Court — Appellate Division
    • December 22, 2023
    ...of the direct consequences of his guilty plea. Defendant thus failed to preserve a challenge to the voluntariness of his plea (see Williams, 27 N.Y.3d at 223; People Murray, 15 N.Y.3d 725, 726-727 [2010]; People v Sealey, 207 A.D.3d 1088, 1088-1089 [4th Dept 2022], lv denied 38 N.Y.3d 1190 ......

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