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The Right To Present A Defense And The Boundaries Of Collateral Evidence

People v. Spencer

The erroneous exclusion of relevant evidence will not necessarily lead to a conviction being overturned on appeal.

The People v. Spencer 2101 N Y Slip Op 08567

Decided: December 13 2012 New York Court of Appeals

Issue: Whether the improper preclusion of evidence adduced by the Defendant which was wrongly assessed as “collateral”, ought to give grounds for the original conviction and sentence being overturned.

Holding: On the facts, no. The trial judge was wrong to categorize the evidence in question as collateral but nevertheless, the weight of evidence against the Defendant was such that the error was “harmless beyond a reasonable doubt”. 

Facts: Defendant was charged with one count of criminal possession of a weapon in the second degree and other related charges. Witnesses testified that Defendant had been involved in a street level altercation with a third party on the evening in question. Shortly afterwards, the Complainant, an off-duty police officer arrived at the scene. Complainant and other witnesses gave evidence that the Defendant assaulted the Complainant and brandished a firearm. The evidence upon which the Defendant wished to rely was his own testimony to the effect that the third party and the Police Officer Complainant were close friends and that the Complainant permitted the third party to deal drugs directly outside his home. This evidence was precluded by Supreme Court on the basis it was “collateral”. The Court of Appeals gave the opinion that this categorization was incorrect and the Defendant ought to have had the opportunity to rely on it. Given the weight of other evidence against the Defendant however, the original conviction of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and 15 year sentence was upheld.

Analysis: The case illustrates how an irregularity or omission will not necessarily give rise to a conviction being overturned. Even taking into account the principle that “trial courts have broad discretion to keep the proceeding within manageable limits and to curtail the exploration of collateral matters” (People v Hudy 73 NY2d 40, 56 [1988]), it was nevertheless the case that the evidence in question – (i.e. relating to the Complainant’s alleged connection with the third party) could rightly be categorized as “tending to establish a reason to fabricate” and ought not to have been regarded as collateral. After all, a defendant has the constitutional right “to present a complete defense” California v Trombetta 467 US [1984]. Despite this, the strength of the evidence against the Defendant (notably eyewitness testimony and 911 calls) was such that essentially the wrongful preclusion of this evidence would not have made any difference to the outcome. The lack of material prejudice to the Defendant meant that the conviction was not overturned.