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Codefendant Felony Acquitted: Assisting Defendant May Still Be Criminally Liable


Codefendant Felony Acquitted: Assisting Defendant May Still Be Criminally Liable

 

People v. Fisher

2017 NY Slip Op 01143

Court of Appeals

Decided on February 14, 2017

 

Issue: Whether a defendant is rendered innocent of hindering prosecution conviction following the codefendants acquittal of the underlying felony.

 

Holding: The Court of Appeals held that a codefendants acquittal of the underlying felony does not automatically render defendant innocent of hindering prosecution nor does it allow him to withdraw his guilty plea.

felony sentence

 

Facts: Fisher was originally charged with hindering prosecution in the first and criminal possession of a weapon in the third for providing and hiding a gun used by codefendant Roche in a fatal shooting. Fisher pled guilty to hindering prosecution in the second degree, waving his right to appeal. The defendant admitted to rending criminal assistance to Roche and that he believed Roche committed murder in the second.

 

During Roche’s trial, the victim’s brother testified that he witnessed Roche shoot his brother. Following the brother’s statements, the prosecutor discovered notes of the pretrial interview with the victim’s brother. The notes indicated doubt of what the brother actually saw the night of the shooting. Roche’s lawyer asserted that the notes should have been disclosed under Rosario and attempted to impeach the testifying brother.

 

Roche testified that he had no intention of shooting the victim and that he only intended to display the gun to get a group of people to leave the apartment where the fatal shooting would occur. Roche claimed that the victim grabbed for the gun and, in the chaos, the gun accidentally fired, killing the victim.

 

The jury acquitted Roche of the felony charges and, thereafter, Fisher moved to withdraw his plea. The court denied the motion and sentenced him in accordance with the plea agreement.

 

Analysis: The defendant challenged the trial court’s denial of his motion on two grounds. First, the defendant asserted that the plea was not voluntary, knowing, and intelligent because of the lack of the prosecutor’s notes prior to the plea. Second, the defendant urged that Roche’s acquittal of the underlying felony should render him innocent of his hindering prosecution conviction.

 

The Court first established that a defendant’s due process rights are violated when prosecution has suppressed evidence that is material to either guilt or punishment. People v Bryce, 88 NY2d 124, 128 (1996). To determine whether there was a violation of due process rights, the defendant must prove that the evidence was favorable to them because of exculpatory or impeaching nature, that evidence was actually suppressed by the prosecution, and that a prejudice arose because of the suppression.

 

guiltypleaUpon determining that the notes were not directly linked to the defendant’s actions or intentions, the Court held that the suppressed evidence was not favorable to the defendant. Fisher alleged that the notes provided that Roche must have acted in self-defense since the victim grabbed for the gun, but the Court held that this claim was meritless. If anything, the Court noted, the victim acted in self-defense.

 

Fisher also asserted that the People could not establish the necessary element of hindering prosecution and that Roche’s acquittal would make it impossible for him to be guilty of this crime. Under Penal Law 205.60, it is illegal to assist a person who has committed a class B or class C felony. If, for instance, someone attempts to harbor a person who has committed a felony or hide any criminal evidence from authorities, that person hinders prosecution.

 

People v Chico, 90 NY2d 585, 588 (1997) provided clarification that the statute does not require proof that the assisted person was ever arrested or convicted. Accordingly, the defendant’s argument is flawed in that not all aspects and events of Roche’s case are relevant to the outcome of the defendant’s case. In addition, the defendant also testified that he witnessed the codefendant committing the crime, which established the underlying felony and allowed the People to prove their burden. During the plea, the defendant also admitted to hindering prosecution, further establishing the commission of the felony.

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Fisher alleged that his guilt was inextricably tied to Roche’s criminal liability, so Roche’s acquittal of the underlying felony should respectively render him innocent and permit him to withdraw his guilty plea. The Court held that the defendant’s assertion is flawed because a “defendant’s culpability is not dependent on the assisted persons arrest or conviction” and that “an acquittal is only finding reasonable doubt, not a finding that the person tried is in fact innocent.”

 

The Court noted that since Roche’s acquittal occurred without the defendant’s plea, the jury didn’t have the benefit of hearing the defendant’s admission that Roche committed the murder. Fisher assumed that the jury’s acquittal meant the jury only acquitted him because they believed Roche was innocent. However, various reasons exist for a jury to acquit a defendant other than a finding of innocence, including mercy or an unsanctioned jury nullification.

 

The intention behind hindering prosecution is to help the assisted person’s objective in avoiding criminal liability. Whether the assisted person is arrested or convicted of the underlying felony does not necessarily render the defendant innocent of hindering prosecution. In fact, the Court held that the very purpose of Penal Law 205.50 is to hold accountable those who successfully or unsuccessfully interfere with the investigation of the person who has allegedly committed a felony. To allow acquittal of a defendant who has attempted to do just that, even where the codefendant was acquitted of the connected felony, would undermine the purpose of the statute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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