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Rules of Evidence: Defendant’s Testimony At Trial

People v. Robinson 2011 NY Slip Op 07147

Decided on October 13, 2011

Issue: Whether the trial court erred when it did not allow the defendant to testify regarding a statement that he had made to the police at the time of his arrest.

Holding: the trial court erred and a new trial was ordered because the defendant was not given the opportunity to explain fully the statements he made while in police custody and defendant’s statements were both pertinent and probative of his guilt or innocence.

Facts: On February 16, Officer Jason Finn observed a vehicle pull away from a parked position without using a turning signal. He also noticed excessive smoke emanating from the vehicle’s tailpipe. Officer Finn stopped the vehicle. Defendant, the vehicle’s operator and sole occupant, abruptly exited the vehicle and walked towards a nearby store. Officer Finn repeatedly instructed defendant to return to the vehicle, but defendant refused.

Officer Finn advised defendant that he was under arrest for obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. Officer Finn conducted an inventory search, discovering a loaded revolver under the driver’s seat. Defendant was charged with criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree.

Officer Finn testified that, after explaining to defendant that he was being charged with possessing a loaded firearm, defendant responded, “it wasn’t armed, but that’s okay, possession is nine/tenths of the law.” .” The People objected to defense counsel’s subsequent question, “Why did you say if you recall nine-tenths of the law — possession is nine-tenths of the law?” County Court sustained People’s objection to that question. County Court instructed the jury on the automobile presumption, stating that all persons occupying a vehicle are presumed to possess a firearm found within the vehicle (see Penal Law § 265.15). The jury found defendant guilty.


Legal Analysis: This Court has stated that “[t]he paramount purpose of all rules of evidence is to ensure that the jury will hear all pertinent, reliable and probative evidence which bears on the disputed issues” (People v Miller, 39 NY2d 543, 551 [1976]; see also People v Yazum, 13 NY2d 302, 304 [1963]). Here, the Appellate Division properly found that County Court erred when it denied defendant an opportunity to explain fully the statements he made while in police custody since defendant’s statements were both pertinent and probative.

We conclude however that the error was not harmless. An error is harmless only when there is “overwhelming proof of the defendant’s guilt” and no significant probability that the jury would have acquitted the defendant were it not for the error (People v Crimmins, 36 NY2d 230, 242 [1975]; see also People v Arafet, 13 NY3d 460, 467 [2009]). It was not defendant’s vehicle. He had been driving it for only a short period of time prior to the traffic stop, and then only to take someone to the train station. Several different family members had access to the vehicle prior to defendant’s use on this occasion. In light of this, defendant’s potentially inculpatory statements about the revolver were the sole evidence tending to establish that he knew that the revolver was in the vehicle when he was stopped.

Because defendant was not allowed the opportunity to explain those statements, the jury was left to reconcile the automobile presumption with the officer’s account of defendant’s ambiguous statements. Considering that defendant’s explanation may have created doubt in the jury’s mind sufficient to rebut the automobile presumption, resulting in an acquittal, it cannot be said that the error was harmless.

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