Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Insufficient Factual Allegations Render Complaint Jurisdictionally Defective

We don't see misuse of NYCTA MetroCard charges very often, but the Court of Appeals decided such a case today in People v Hightower (#223 decided December 23, 2011). What makes the case applicable to us is that the defendant pled guilty to Petit Larceny, and a unanimous Court of Appeals dismissed the charges because the accusatory was jurisdictionally defective.

Hightower was charged with three charges, PL and two relating to the specific activity (swiping an unlimited MetroCard and accepting money for allowing another person to ride the subway). As I said, he pled to PL, so the fact that the other charges were perfectly well established by the accusatory was irrelevant. The prosecution claimed that Hightower had stolen the (unknown amount of) money which he obtained for use of the card. The Court of Appeals ruled that this money was never owned by the NYC Transit Authority. What is important for our purposes is not the discussion of when an agency becomes owner of the currency, but what failures in a misdemeanor accusatory will render it jurisdictionally defective.

"In People v Dreyden (15 NY3d 100, 103 [2010]), we recognized two broad categories of defects to be used as guideposts in determining whether an accusatory instrument is jurisdictionally flawed: "[t]he distinction between jurisdictional and nonjurisdictional defects 'is between defects implicating the integrity of the process . . . and less fundamental flaws, such as evidentiary or technical matters'" (quoting People v Hansen 95 NY2d 227, 231 [2000]) and we find that the violation of the reasonable cause requirement (as set forth in CPL 100.40 [4][b]) here falls into the first category.

In order for the reasonable cause standard to be met, the factual portion of the accusatory instrument must describe conduct that constitutes the crime charged. Although the information in this case described the events with enough clarity to provide reasonable cause that defendant was engaged in the unlawful sale of NYCTA services and providing unlawful access to NYCTA services, we hold that it was jurisdictionally defective as to the crime of which defendant was actually convicted -- petit larceny."

100.40(4)(b) provides in turn "(b) The allegations of the factual part of such accusatory instrument and/or any supporting depositions which may accompany it, provide reasonable cause to believe that the defendant committed the offense charged in the accusatory part of such instrument."

Read together, these two provisions strike me as broad enough to be generally applicable to all failures of the accusatory to substantiate the charge against the defendant, except perhaps when the failure can be deemed "technical". My opinion: few things are going to be more technical than the issue of who owns the money a defendant collects for allowing someone to use his MetroCard. So if that's not technical, most of your cases will not be, either.

This is not a new rule of law, but it is a common occurrence, and so worth keeping in mind. This is especially true for two reasons. First, the defendant pled to PL, which normally vitiates any complaints about sufficiency, and the charges were nonetheless dismissed on appeal. That's a strong rule. Second, because the defendant had already served his time, the charges were dismissed outright. That's a pretty good result for reading the accusatory carefully.

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