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Five Minute Time Limitation On Voir Dire Reversible Error Given The Complexity Of The Case.

New York Court of Appeals People v. Steward 2011 NY Slip Op 04716                       Decided June 7, 2011

Issue: Whether the trial court abused its discretion in imposing a five minute limitation on counsel for the questioning of jurors during each round of voir dire.

Holding: The trial court was in error in adhering to the unusually short time restriction after defense counsel objected.

Facts: The defendant was charged with multiple counts of robbery in the first and second degree and various weapons charges.  Prior to jury selection the Judge informed the attorneys that they would be given only five minutes to question each panel of prospective jurors.  At the conclusion of the first round of voir dire, defense counsel objected to the time limit stating that five minutes was not enough time to conduct an adequate inquiry of venire persons because of the complexity of the case.

Without addressing the defendant’s objection, the court continued to enforce the time limit in the two subsequent rounds of voir dire.  There were a number of jurors that expressed doubts about ability to be fair or identified topics of potential bias.  Defense counsel did not have enough time to question these potential jurors on these topics.

The defendant was eventually convicted two counts of robbery in the first degree and one count of robbery in the second degree.

Legal Analysis:

Criminal Procedure Law §270.15 does not impose time limits:

Although CPL §270.15 governs jury selection, it does not impose any specific time limitations for voir dire.  It does state that the scope of counsel’s examination of prospective jurors shall be within the discretion of the court.

The Court of Appeals has interpreted this to mean that although the trial court has broad discretion in imposing time limits, any restrictions imposed on voir dire must afford counsel a fair opportunity to question prospective jurors abut relevant matters.  People v. Jean, 75 NY2d 744 (1989).

Pertinent factors that court should consider if imposing time limits on voir dire:

If the trial court is going to impose a time limitation, the allotment should be appropriate to the circumstances of the case.  It would be impossible to compile an exhaustive list of all the factors that might be considered by the trial court, but some of the factors that should be considered are: the number of jurors and alternate jurors to be selected, the number of peremptory challenges available to the parties, the number and nature and seriousness of the charges against the defendant, any notoriety the case may have received in the media or local community, special considerations such as anticipated defenses, unique concerns emanating from the identity of characteristics of the defendant, the victim, the witnesses or counsel, and the extent to which the court will examine prospective jurors.

For reversal of conviction defendant must show prejudice:

The fact that the court imposed such a strict time limitation and counsel did not have enough time to question jurors on specific topics does not automatically warrant reversal of the conviction; the defendant must also show that he suffered some prejudice.

In this case the prejudice inquiry was difficult to carry out because the court stenographer did not identify the jurors, but referred to all members of the prospective panel as “prospective juror”.

The Court of Appeals found that given the lack of clarity in the record concerning whether certain prospective jurors were discharged or retained, the Court could not refute the defendant’s claim of prejudice

Since the record established that the unusually short time restriction imposed by the trial court prevented counsel from having a sufficient opportunity to examine the various prospective jurors whose statements could reasonably be expected to elicit further questioning, and defendant’s claim of prejudice cannot be discounted, the Court of Appeals concluded that the conviction must be reversed dan the case remitted for a new trial.