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The Constitutional Right To Present A Complete Defense – The Exception: Collateral Matters

The People & c., Respondent


Andrew Spencer, Appellant

20 NY3d 955

Decided:   December 13, 2012

Issue: The defendant sought to interpose a defense, claiming that the complainant falsely implicated the defendant to protect the third party in this case because the complainant and third party were close friends.  The issue is whether the defendant’s proposed trial testimony was “collateral” and if the court showed prejudice or bias by not allowing the evidence at his trial.

Holding: The court affirmed that, although the defendant’s testimony was incorrectly excluded, the error was harmless due to the overwhelming evidence presented in the trial against the defendant.  In addition, the court did not display impermissible bias toward the defense counsel by excluding this evidence..

Facts: The defendant engaged in as street altercation with a third party.  According to eye witnesses, when an off duty police officer arrived at the scene the defendant punched the police officer and brandished a firearm, which was loaded.  Two 911 calls were also placed at the time of the incident corroborating the police officer’s version of the events.

At his trial the defendant claimed that the police officer falsely implicated him to protect the third party because the police officer and the third party were close friends.

The Supreme Court excluded this evidence on the ground that the proposed testimony was “collateral”, convicted the defendant of second-degree criminal possession of a weapon and imposed a 15 year sentence in prison followed by 5 years of post release supervision.

Legal Analysis: A defendant always has the constitutional right to present a complete defense.  Nonetheless, the court has the discretion to keep the proceedings within manageable limits and to curtail exploration of collateral matters.  However, if the counsel has a good faith basis for eliciting evidence, extrinsic proof tending to establish a reason to fabricate is never collateral and may not be excluded on that ground.

The Appellate Court concluded that although the Supreme Court improperly excluded this evidence from the defendant’s trial, the overwhelming independent proof adduced at the trial against the defendant made this error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and that the Court did not display impermissible bias toward the defense.  The court order was affirmed and the sentence upheld.