Tuesday, February 4, 2020

New York’s bail reform statute, while only in existence for just over a month, has generated numerous news stories, opinion pieces, and critical articles. Already, there have been calls for the law’s repeal (In the words of one state senator’s call for repeal: “This is only a partial list of offenses that allow criminals to leave prison without bail. These ‘reforms’ are now giving a free pass to many individuals who commit serious crimes that place our communities at risk” [https://www.nysenate.gov/petitions/james-l-seward/repeal-bail- reform]). These criticisms often equate having been charged with a crime with committing it. They stoke fear that a person charged with a crime will commit other crimes while released, reinforcing this bias by reporting arrests of people during their release on other charges. Seldom do these criticisms mention that an accused person is presumed innocent. 

The tenor of popular discourse on this issue evidences a dark reality that looms in the depths of our criminal justice system. That is, most jurors probably don’t presume the innocence of the accused. Yet, that presumption lies at the foundation of our criminal justice system, requiring trial courts to instruct juries about the presumption without minimizing its importance (see CPL § 300.10[2]; People v Hall, 155 AD2d 344, 346-347 [1st Dept 1989]). 

The problem is that potential jurors often hide their true feelings on the presumption of innocence. They’ll tell the court they can presume innocence, while wondering what crime the defendant committed. And who can blame a juror for hiding this opinion? In a courtroom full of strangers, who would want to be seen as unfair, biased, or unjust? 

To unmask a potential jurors true feelings on the presumption of innocence, we should ask them to share their opinion on bail reform. In the answer, a potential juror might equate criminal charges with commission of a crime, just like many of the critics. And because these criticisms are veiled in terms of justice and/or fairness, a potential juror may be more willing to share an opinion. An answer could even spark a helpful debate amongst the panel. There is no downside in asking.

We should expect this line of questioning to be met with resistance from the trial court, which has broad discretion in limiting questioning during jury selection (see People v Boulware, 29 NY2d 135[1971]; People v Corbett, 68 AD2d 7762 [4th Dept 1979]). We should respond that these questions address the ability of a potential juror to be fair and impartial, an area of inquiry in which a trial court is more apt to commit error (see CPL § 270.20[1][b]; People v Arnold, 96 NY2d 358 [2001]; People v Johnson, 94 NY2d 600 [2000]; People v Lewis, 71 AD3d 1582 [4th Dept 2010]; People v Habte, 35 AD3d 1199 [4th  Dept 2006]). 

Thus, for example, if a potential juror favors pretrial incarceration, we should be able to determine if the juror favors such incarceration because he assumes someone has committed a crime when charged with a crime. It should also be determined if a juror favors pretrial incarceration to prevent a defendant from committing more crimes. If that’s the case, it’s unlikely the juror would follow a Sandoval or Molineux instruction. 

We should move to strike these jurors for cause. Before rejecting such a challenge, the trial court must have some basis in finding that the juror will render a verdict based on evidence and free of these biases. Unfortunately, these biases are reinforced in the daily news cycle. 

In situations like the above, a trial court will ask if the potential juror can still be “fair and impartial” despite prior statements suggesting otherwise. Most jurors respond that they can be fair and impartial. 

But it is not enough for a trial court simply to hear a potential juror agree that he could be fair and impartial; when a doubt remains about a potential juror’s ability to be fair, the juror should be discharged for cause (People v Bludson, 97 NY2d 644 [2001]). This means that even after a potential juror assured that he can be fair and impartial, we should ask if the juror has changed his opinion about bail reform.

We could also direct their attention to the trial court’s earlier instruction that the charges in the indictment and the indictment itself are not evidence of guilt. 

If a juror maintains his criticism of bail reform after this questioning, the juror likely will maintain his or her assumptions underlying the criticism. In this case, no instruction will rid the juror of this assumption, and a doubt remains of the juror’s ability to be fair and impartial. When a doubt like this exists, a juror must be discharged for cause. A trial court that fails to do so risks reversal.

By Paul Meabon