Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Rose By Any Other Name

by William T. Easton, a/k/a "Bill", a/k/a "Billy"

In recent years our firm has noted the prosecution’s increased use of monikers or “a/k/a”s in the captions of indictments, especially for those defendants charged federally with gang-associated offenses such as Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) crimes, CCE (Continued Criminal Enterprise) crimes, and defendants charged state-side with gang-related offenses.       

Oddly, this firm has not detected a similar increase in our white collar practice, even in conspiracy cases involving multiple defendants.  Thus, a defendant in a white collar case who is widely known as “Chip,” “the Chipster” or “Biff” will usually be indicted under his or her own proper name, while a “blue collar” defendant who has a nickname of “Money,” “Killer” or “Smooth” will usually be indicted with his moniker included prominently in the caption of the indictment.

This misuse of a nickname should be resisted by motion. As a threshold, you should draw the distinction between an alias and a “street name” (or a nickname). The former is an official use of an assumed name often to evade detection or escape responsibility. The reference to the use of an alias should be viewed as a prior “bad act” under either People v. Sandoval, 34 NY 2d 371 (1974), or People v. Molineux ,168 NY 264 (1901) and subjected to the usual procedural and substantive  protections of these doctrines. New York Law is surprisingly good in this area. See People v. Walker, 83 2d 455 (1994); People v. Butler, 138 A.D.2d 615 (2d Dept. 1988). As such, the prosecution should not be permitted to short cut the process by simply appending the alias to the indictment. See People v. Klukofsky, 201 Misc 457 (1951).

Just as pernicious, however, is the use of the “street name”--an unofficial moniker--which you should also move to strike. The motion should be in two parts. First, you should move to strike the nickname or alias from the indictment as surplusage, or alternatively request the Court  not to read it to the jury. There is no reason to read the caption of the indictment including the moniker to the jury.  Most trial courts will agree with you on this, especially when accompanied by a modest concession that you will not assert a defense that a person other than the defendant who has the “street name” of your client committed the offense, not your client. See People v. Bellamy, 26 AD 3d 638 (3rd Dept. 2006).

Second, you should bar reference to the moniker itself, and relatedly the prosecution’s misuse of it either during cross examination or summation.  The prosecution almost always tries to make the street name an indicator of your client’s character or community reputation (usually for violence, dishonesty or criminality). In United States v. Farmer, 583 F.3d 131 (2d Cir 2009), the Second Circuit reversed a federal attempted murder conviction and roundly condemned this practice. In Farmer, the prosecutor indicted the homicide defendant and included the moniker “Murder” in the indictment and copiously referred to the street name in summation. The Second Circuit ruled:
 a potentially prejudicial nickname should not be used in a manner beyond the scope of its proper admission that invites unfair prejudice. Federal Rule of Evidence 404(a) provides (with exceptions not applicable here) that “[e]vidence of a person's character or a trait of character is not admissible for the purpose of proving action in conformity therewith on a particular occasion.” It is the ethical obligation of the prosecutor, and the legal obligation of the court, to ensure that this rule is observed....In this case, the prosecutors, in their addresses to the jury, invited prejudice by repeatedly emphasizing Farmer's nickname in a manner designed to suggest that he was known by his associates as a murderer and that he acted in accordance with that propensity in carrying out the acts charged in the indictment. This abuse of Farmer's nickname entitles Farmer to a new trial...
Thus, in almost all cases, you should move to strike a “street name” from the caption of the indictment and take steps to further ensure that the prosecution does not attempt to use the street name for purposes of showing reputation or propensity.  Farmer is strong support for such motion.

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