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Hearing Impairment Does Not Per Se Preclude Individual As A Juror: Trial Court Has Discretion And If Possible Reasonable Accommodation Should Be Made


People v. Guay 2011 NY Slip Op 08178

Decided November 15, 2011 New York Court of Appeals.   

Issue: Whether Supreme Court abused its discretion when it dismissed a hearing-impaired prospective juror for cause.

Holding: We hold that it did not. Trial courts have discretion to determine whether an auditory problem will unduly interfere with an individual’s ability to fulfill the important functions that trial jurors perform. This determination, “[a]s with most juror qualification questions,” must “be left largely to the discretion of the trial court, which can question and observe the prospective juror . . . during the voir dire”.

Facts: Defendant was indicted for first-degree rape, first-degree sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child. During jury selection, after groups of venire members were placed in the jury box for individual questioning, the trial court read introductory instructions to these prospective jurors and inquired if anyone had difficulty hearing. Venire member 1405 responded affirmatively.

Defense counsel apparently realized that venire member 1405 was having trouble comprehending the questions and asked him if he had “any problems hearing as  He replied “[o]nce in a while you talk awfully low.” Defense counsel remarked, “I have to be reminded to speak up. But you could sit on a jury throughout the course of the week? You don’t think you would have any hearing problems as long as I speak up?” The prospective juror responded “I’m pretty good right here in the front” row of the jury box.

At the conclusion of this round of voir dire, the People moved to dismiss venire member 1405 for cause. The prosecutor noted that the panelist “had trouble hearing the [c]ourt” and that child victims frequently “have trouble speaking up” when they testify, which raised a concern that venire member 1405 could “miss critical parts of [Jane’s] testimony.” Defense counsel opposed the request, Although Supreme Court agreed with defense counsel’s characterization of venire member 1405’s statements, the judge further explained  I think that the People make a valid point that children tend to be more soft spoken witnesses, and adults, all things considered, I think his hearing is a big enough problem []here that it does disqualify him from serving as a juror.”

The court therefore granted the People’s challenge for cause. The jury convicted defendant on all counts. He was sentenced to an aggregate prison term of 20 years and 10 years of postrelease supervision.

Legal Analysis: Defendant contends that the trial court erred because it allegedly failed to engage in an adequate inquiry regarding venire member 1405’s ability to serve on the jury and, rather than dismissing him for cause, the court should have accommodated his hearing impairment.

New York has long considered jury service to be a civil right that is a privilege and duty of citizenship protected by the State Constitution. A person’s ability to serve as a juror, however, must be balanced against the accused’s fundamental constitutional rights and the State’s obligation to provide a fair trial. Among other requirements specified in Judiciary Law § 510, “[i]n order to qualify as a juror a person must . . . [b]e able to understand and communicate in the English language” (Judiciary Law § 510 [4]). 

When confronted with such a situation involving a prospective juror’s hearing impairment, a court must determine whether the individual has the ability to “understand all of the evidence presented, evaluate that evidence in a rational manner, communicate effectively with the other jurors during deliberations, and comprehend the applicable legal principles, as instructed by the court” (People v Guzman, 76 NY2d at 5).

If a judge is made aware of a reasonable accommodation that would allow a hearing-impaired prospective juror to fulfill these duties without interfering with the defendant’s trial rights, such measures should be taken.

A hearing impairment does not per se preclude an individual from serving as a juror. Trial courts have discretion to determine whether an auditory problem will unduly interfere with an individual’s ability to fulfill the important functions that trial jurors perform. This determination, “[a]s with most juror qualification questions,” must “be left largely to the discretion of the trial court, which can question and observe the prospective juror . . . during the voir dire”.

Although the Appellate Division possesses the power to exercise its own discretion and substitute its judgment for that of the trial court, this Court lacks that authority. When the Appellate Division adopts a trial court’s factual findings and the application of those facts to the applicable legal principles, as occurred here, that determination presents a mixed question of law and fact that we cannot overturn unless there is no record support for the trial court’s conclusion.

In this case, we hold that Supreme Court did not abuse its discretion by granting the cause challenge to venire member 1405 because the record supported the determination that his hearing impairment would have unduly interfered with his ability to be a trial juror. It was readily apparent to the court and the parties that this panelist had trouble hearing the precise questions posed.

It is also significant that, aside from the panelist’s own suggestion that he remain in the front row, the court was not asked to offer any other reasonable accommodation that may have adequately assuaged the concerns about the prospective juror’s ability to understand the proceedings and fulfill the functions of a trial juror.

The record also does not reveal whether any type of audio equipment for the hearing impaired was available in the courthouse or whether venire member 1405 would have been willing to use such a device. Therefore, this case is not akin to Guzman, where the prospective juror confirmed that a sign language interpreter would allow him to follow the proceedings verbatim. In the absence of some suggestion for reasonably addressing the concerns about venire member 1405, we cannot fault the trial court for failing to order an accommodation sua sponte.

It is imperative that the privilege and duty of jury service be made available to all eligible individuals — regardless of disability — who are capable of performing this civic function. For this reason, a judge should endeavor to make a reasonable and tactful inquiry of any prospective juror who appears to have a hearing impairment and consider offering to provide an assistive amplification device or some other appropriate accommodation available in our court system.

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