Oct 27

New York Appeals Court Rules Judge Who Convicted A Defendant Cannot Also Decide Their Appeal

The New York Court of Appeals unanimously ruled on October 24, 2017 that the judge who convicted a defendant cannot also solely decide their appeal.

New York Court of Appeals building (Rick Kopstein)

New York Court of Appeals building (Rick Kopstein)

Brian Novak was ticketed in August 2012 in Schenectady, New York for misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and related traffic infractions. He pled not guilty when arraigned in Schenectady City Court.

In 2013 the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office filed a superseding information that charged Novak with misdemeanor driving while ability-impaired.

Novak’s lawyer filed a motion to dismiss the charge. Schenectady City Court Judge Matthew J. Sypniewski denied the motion.

Judge Sypniewski found Novak guilty after a bench trial.

Novak appealed his conviction to the Schenectady County Court. An appeal to the county court is decided by a single judge.

Judge Sypniewski had been elected to the County Court in November 2014. He was assigned to hear Novak’s appeal of his conviction by Sypniewski when he was a City Court Judge.

Novak’s lawyer filed a motion for Sypniewski to recuse himself, which he denied. Judge Sypniewski then affirmed Novak’s conviction.

Novak’s petition was granted for leave to appeal to New York’s Court of Appeal.

Novak appealed on two issues: First, his federal and state constitutional right to due process was violated by having his direct appeal decided by the same judge who convicted him. Second, his conviction was based on a “defective accusatory instrument” because a simplified traffic ticket is “not the type of accusatory instrument that can be superseded by a prosecutor’s information.”

The State argued that under New York law there is “no legal ground requiring recusal from the judge deciding defendant’s appeal. In the absence of any legal grounds for recusal, it was in the discretion of the judge whether or not to recuse himself based on the appearance of partiality.”

On October 24, 2017 the Court of Appeal unanimously (7-0) decided that Novak’s due process right to have his appeal decided by a disinterested judge was violated by Sypniewski’s refusal to recuse himself. In The People v..Brian Novak, No. 94 of 2017 (NY Ct. of Appeal) the court ruled:

“… unlike this Court, intermediate appellate courts in this State are empowered to review both questions of law and fact, “this unique factual review power is the linchpin of our constitutional and statutory design intended to afford each [defendant] at least one appellate review of the facts.” Further, when a state embraces a court system composed of hierarchical appellate tribunals, maintaining the integrity of that review process is of fundamental, constitutional importance. … Thus, because our laws grant a right to challenge a judgment on direct appeal, a defendant is entitled to the minimum safeguards of due process under the federal and state constitutions.”

“The right to an impartial jurist is a “basic requirement of due process.” Not only must judges actually be neutral, they must appear so as well. We therefore conclude that, under principles of due process, a judge may not act as appellate decision-maker in a case over which the judge previously presided at trial.”

In this case, the same Judge ruled upon defendant’s pretrial motions, served as the trier of fact, convicted defendant, sentenced defendant, and then proceeded to serve as the sole reviewing Judge on appeal. On these facts, there was a clear abrogation of our State’s court structure that guarantees one level of independent factual review as of right.

Therefore, under these circumstances, recusal, as a matter of due process, was required.

Because this is a constitutional matter, the People’s argument that County Court committed no statutory violation misses the mark.

… where there is no opportunity for independent scrutiny by a new decision-maker, the appellate process is compromised, and due process has been violated.

Inasmuch as this matter must be remitted to County Court for defendant’s appeal to be heard by a different judge, we render no opinion on the other issues raised by defendant in his appeal.”

The Court’s ruling is precedential for New York state.

Click here to read People v..Brian Novak, No. 94 of 2017 (New York Court of Appeal, 10-24-2017)

October 27, 2017
By Hans Sherrer
Justice Denied

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