Projects, Units & Initiatives
The Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau (CAB), consisting of approximately 90 attorneys, 3 social workers, 36 paralegals, an investigator and support staff, is the largest provider of services to low-income people in New York City who are challenging their criminal convictions on direct appeal and in post-conviction proceedings. CAB lawyers regularly practice in the Appellate Divisions and Appellate Terms for the First and Second Departments, and in the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. Our lawyers are also engaged in applying for resentencing of domestic violence survivors under the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act (DVSJA), representing clients at Sex Offender Registration Act (SORA) hearings and on appeal, and in seeking clemency relief. CAB, moreover, assists clients as they ready themselves, many after long terms of incarceration, to meet the Parole Board.
Significant Appellate Decisions
In People v. Hill, 38 N.Y.3d 460 (2022), CAB won a significant victory protecting low-level substance users from the punitive consequences of the criminal legal system. In 2018, police arrested Mr. Hill and charged him with possessing synthetic marijuana, a substance commonly known by the street name K2. Following the arrest, the officer prepared a complaint, in which he claimed to recognize the substance as K2 based upon his training and experience. To end the case against him, Mr. Hill pleaded guilty at his arraignment. This pattern – K2 arrest, arraignment, and guilty plea – was, at the time, a common occurrence in the New York City Criminal Court.
New York law, however, does not prohibit possession of a substance denominated K2. Rather, P.L. §220.03 outlaws only possession of ten specified synthetic cannabinoids. In the absence of a chemical test, no police officer, even one with extensive training and experience, could plausibly determine whether the substance a person possessed was, in fact, one of the banned cannabinoids.
Mr. Hill raised this challenge to the sufficiency of the complaint in an appeal to the Appellate Term, but he was unsuccessful. Leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals was granted and that Court reversed the conviction, dismissing the case against him. In a decision for a unanimous Court, Judge Singas noted that “[a]bsent a basis for explaining the officer’s belief that the substance possessed was [one of the specifically prohibited chemical substances], the conduct alleged in the complaint is as consistent with legal conduct as it is with illegal conduct.” Id. at 466. Given those circumstances the conviction could not stand.
DVSJA Client Resentenced
CK was the victim of physical and psychological abuse perpetrated by HD, with whom she lived and was in an intimate relationship. HD’s abusive and coercive actions and control over CK contributed significantly to her conduct in this case. The physical altercation that led to HD’s death was initiated by HD, and ended when CK stabbed HD, which resulted in his death. CK had been incarcerated for over sixteen years. During that time, she worked hard toward her rehabilitation and dedicated herself to turning her life around, including by earning her Associate of Arts degree, staying clean and sober, and participating in a variety of programming. Given these circumstances, the court held that CKs sentence of a determinate term of twenty-three years of imprisonment and five years of post-release supervision was, under the standards of the DVSJA, unduly harsh, and was imposed without regard to the impact of domestic abuse on her conduct.
Following Mr. W.’s conviction of first-degree murder for an offense committed in 1995 when he was only 18 years old, Mr. W was sentenced to life without parole. The Appellate Division, First Department, agreed with CAB that this sentence was excessive—given Mr. W’s age at the time of the offense along with several other mitigating circumstances—and reduced his sentence to 25 years to life. In January 2021, despite a strong record of rehabilitation, Mr. W was denied parole in a decision that relied on erroneous facts. CAB successfully challenged this denial in an Article 78 proceeding in Dutchess County Supreme Court and that court ordered a de novo parole hearing.
Mr. W’s case was referred to our newly-established Parole Advocacy Project (PAP), which had a very short timeframe to get to know Mr. W and assist him him in self-advocating at his upcoming parole hearing. Mr. W’s crime of conviction was complex and required a nuanced understanding of how to communicate honestly and effectively. The goal was to encourage the board to see Mr. W’s genuine remorse, his thoughtfulness about his past, and his commitment to continuing all of the positive work he had started in prison, rather than simply seeing him as a former 18-year-old convicted of a homicide. Mr. W worked hard with PAP to practice for the interview and felt much more confident heading into his hearing. The hearing was successful, Mr. W was released in June of 2022, and began work as an outreach coordinator at Housing Works shortly after he returned home.
SORA Relief Obtained
CAB recently secured an appellate victory in a SORA case vindicating the principle that procedural rules must be applied evenhandedly to both the prosecution and the defense. In advance of his SORA hearing, Mr. A disputed a claim made by the Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders that he had never met the complainant. This claim was critical to Mr. A’s case because his risk level turned on its resolution. On the initial date of Mr. A’s SORA hearing, the prosecution failed to supply any evidence on the issue. This pattern continued over the course of several adjournments, causing the SORA court to rule in Mr. A’s favor. After the court ruled, however, the prosecution moved to reopen, contending, for the first time, that it had evidence to present. Though the prosecution provided no excuse for its repeated failure to present evidence, the court reopened the hearing and reversed its decision.
Mr. A. appealed, highlighting the unfairness of the SORA hearing court’s ruling. Holding that the prosecution had not provided “any reasonable justification” for failing to present evidence earlier, the Appellate Division reversed. The prosecution had been given ample opportunity to make its case and the SORA court had “made a proper decision based on the information in front of it.”
Governor Grants Clemency
MM, age 57, is a Guyanese immigrant and has been a lawful permanent resident of the United States since 1990. He lives in New York with his elderly U.S. citizen and veteran father, who he takes care of, and he is close with his two sisters, a daughter, a son, a step-daughter and a grandchild. All of MM’s significant family members are U.S. citizens residing in the United States.
MM faced deportation back to Guyana based upon a 1999 conviction for second-degree bail jumping for failing to appear in court on a single occasion on unrelated charges as to which he was fully acquitted.
Last Updated: 17 October 2023
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