In January 2007, defendant JF was charged by misdemeanor information filed in New York City Criminal Court, Kings County, with multiple counts of aggravated harassment in the second degree after he contacted his former paramour by telephone 62 times in one evening and repeatedly threatened her with physical harm. JF and the complainant had been involved in multiple prior Family Court cases regarding disputes about their two children. After his arraignment in New York City Criminal Court, the case was transferred to the IDV Part in Kings County Supreme Court where a nonjury trial was conducted. He was convicted of three counts of attempted aggravated harassment in the second degree and sentenced to concurrent terms of one year’s probation. He was also directed to participate in a variety of domestic violence accountability and other programs. He raised no objection in the trial court to the transfer of his case.
In his appeal to the Appellate Division, Second Department, however, he argued that the IDV Part-an arm of Supreme Court-lacked the authority to exercise subject matter jurisdiction over his misdemeanor case because it was prosecuted by information rather than an indictment or superior court information issued after waiver of indictment. Defendant also contended that the Chief Judge and Chief Administrative Judge exceeded the scope of their authority when they issued the IDV directives. In addition, he sought reversal based on an asserted evidentiary error. The Second Department unanimously rejected defendant’s arguments and affirmed his conviction. A Justice of that court granted defendant leave to appeal.
About nine months after the IDV directives were issued, in consultation with the Administrative Board and with the consent of the Court of Appeals, the Chief Judge promulgated part 42 of the Rules of the Chief Judge establishing a criminal division in the Supreme Court in Bronx County. The new part-denominated the Bronx Criminal Division (BCD)-was vested with the authority to adjudicate cases commenced in the New York City Criminal Court, Bronx County, when at least one felony or misdemeanor offense was charged. The intent was to permit cases originating in the Criminal Court to be reassigned to the BCD for trial in order to alleviate a trial backlog that had developed in the Criminal Court. The Chief Administrative Judge adopted part 142 directing, with specified limitations, that certain felony and misdemeanor cases pending in Criminal Court of the City of New York in 933 N.E.2d 709.
Bronx County be transferred to the BCD part of Supreme Court following arraignment, if the cases were not resolved at arraignment. By order of the Administrative Judge of Bronx County, the BCD directives were implemented on 5 November 2004.
Thereafter, in October 2005, defendant EC was charged in a misdemeanor information filed in New York City Criminal Court, Bronx County, with various class A misdemeanors and harassment in the second degree, a violation, resulting from an altercation with his wife. After arraignment, his case was transferred to the BCD and a nonjury trial was conducted. EC was acquitted of the misdemeanor offenses but convicted of the harassment charge and sentenced to 15 days in jail.
Defendant AM was charged in an information with the misdemeanor offenses of obstructing governmental administration and assault in the third degree, as well as one count of harassment in the second degree, a violation, as a result of disruptive behavior during a parole hearing. Following his arraignment in New York City Criminal Court, Bronx County, AM’s case was transferred to the BCD for a nonjury trial in August 2006. He was convicted of attempted assault in the third degree and harassment for which he received 90-day and 15-day jail sentences, respectively.
Defendants in these three cases challenge the rules promulgated by the Chief Judge and Chief Administrative Judge that created either the Bronx Criminal Division or Integrated Domestic Violence Part in Supreme Court, which resulted in the transfer of their misdemeanor prosecutions from local criminal courts to Supreme Court for trial. Although they did not object to the transfer procedure in the trial court, they argued on appeal that Supreme Court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over their trials and that the rules violate the New York Constitution and the Criminal Procedure Law.
Rejecting defendants’ arguments, the court holds that the administrators of the Unified Court System were empowered under our State Constitution and the Judiciary Law to adopt these rules and that Supreme Court-a court of general, concurrent jurisdiction-had the power to adjudicate these misdemeanor cases.
Defendants contend that if UCS administrators had the power under the constitutional and statutory scheme to reassign cases, that authority was exceeded when the BCD and IDV directives were adopted because cases may only be transferred to a court that possesses subject matter jurisdiction. Primarily relying on CPL 210.05, defendants claim that Supreme Court’s power to try a misdemeanor is restricted to cases in which the charge is included in an indictment or SCI, meaning that the court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over misdemeanors charged in an information-so-called “unindicted” misdemeanors. Since none of the defendants in these cases was indicted or waived indictment and agreed to be prosecuted by SCI, they argue that their trials in Supreme Court were a nullity.
The court finds this argument without merit.
There is no question that the Criminal Procedure Law generally contemplates that violations and misdemeanors will be tried in local criminal courts and that felonies, which may be initiated by the filing of an information or complaint but must ultimately be prosecuted by indictment or SCI, will be tried in the superior courts-County Court or Supreme Court. But the issue presented in this case is not whether misdemeanor cases are typically tried in local criminal courts or even whether, when adjudicated in Supreme Court, they are usually charged in an indictment-the answer to both of these questions is undoubtedly “yes.” This dispute concerns the extent to which Supreme Court can exercise subject matter jurisdiction over misdemeanor trials.
The court reviews the New York Constitution to determine the scope of Supreme Court’s jurisdiction. It provides: “The Supreme Court shall have general original jurisdiction in law and equity and the appellate jurisdiction herein provided”. Under this provision, Supreme Court is competent to entertain all causes of action unless its jurisdiction has been specifically proscribed. The court have recognized that, when the drafters of article VI created the UCS in 1962 and continued Supreme Court as a court of general jurisdiction, if anything its jurisdiction was enlarged to encompass claims that it might not have heard under the previous constitutional scheme.
To be sure, the jurisdiction of Supreme Court is limited elsewhere in the New York Constitution. For example, in preserving the State’s historical sovereign immunity from suit, Supreme Court cannot exercise jurisdiction over claims for money damages brought against the State, which must be initiated and tried in the court of claims. Similarly, under the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, Supreme Court may not hear cases in which exclusive jurisdiction has been conferred on the federal courts. And Supreme Court is subject to the same substantive limitations imposed on other courts. Like every other court in New York State, Supreme Court may not convict a defendant of a felony absent compliance with the indictment and waiver of indictment provisions in article I, § 6 of the New York Constitution as was held in People v Wiltshire.
Defendants also assert that the Legislature has imposed statutory restrictions on Supreme Court that prevent trials of misdemeanor charges from being entertained unless they are contained in an indictment or SCI after waiver of indictment. According to defendants, although local criminal courts such as the New York City Criminal Court may try unindicted misdemeanor cases, Supreme Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over those matters and, in this respect, its ability to exercise concurrent jurisdiction with other UCS courts has been curtailed.
If this were in fact the case, a significant constitutional issue would be presented because the court made clear in other contexts that the Legislature cannot by statute deprive Supreme Court of one particle of its jurisdiction, derived from the Constitution, Art. VI, although it may grant concurrent jurisdiction to some other court. Addressing the precise issue raised in these appeals-whether Supreme Court may try an unindicted misdemeanor-there is authority for the proposition that it does and that any effort by the Legislature to “abridge, limit or qualify” the broad jurisdiction conferred under article VI, § 7 would be “unconstitutional and void” as enunciated in the case of People v Darling.
After review of the Criminal Procedure Law provisions on which defendants rely, the court concludes that the Legislature has not adopted statutes that purport to oust Supreme Court of the jurisdiction to try unindicted misdemeanor cases. The court, therefore, need not determine whether the Legislature could take such action, had that been its intent. The CPL divides New York courts into two categories: superior courts and local criminal courts. It also recognizes two types of jurisdiction: “preliminary jurisdiction” and “trial jurisdiction.” Preliminary jurisdiction encompasses conducting arraignments, assigning counsel, setting bail and, in the case of a felony complaint, conducting a preliminary hearing if that right is not waived by defendant. As the title suggests, trial jurisdiction includes the authority to resolve the case on the merits by conducting a trial or accepting a guilty plea, among other actions such as conducting a suppression hearing.
In these appeals, the court is concerned only with whether Supreme Court had trial jurisdiction because, under the BCD and IDV directives, misdemeanor cases are not transferred to Supreme Court until after the preliminary proceedings associated with arraignment have concluded.
CPL 10.20, entitled “Superior courts; jurisdiction,” states that superior courts-which include Supreme Court-“have trial jurisdiction of all offenses” and further specifies that they have exclusive trial jurisdiction of felonies and trial jurisdiction of misdemeanors concurrent with that of the local criminal courts.
A reciprocal provision relating to the jurisdiction of local criminal courts states that they have trial jurisdiction of misdemeanors concurrent with that of the superior courts but subject to divestiture thereof by the latter in any particular case Neither statute conditions the power of a superior court to try misdemeanor cases on the existence of an indictment or SCI. To the contrary, both unqualifiedly state that superior courts possess subject matter jurisdiction to try all misdemeanor cases, a point that is evident from the broad language in CPL 10.30(1)(b) recognizing that a superior court can exercise its divestiture authority “in any particular case.”
In its express language, the CPL acknowledges that superior courts-such as Supreme Court-have subject matter jurisdiction to try misdemeanor cases.
Nor do the divestiture statutes found elsewhere in the CPL undermine this conclusion. CPL 170.20 requires the transfer of a case to a superior court if the People secure an indictment and CPL 170.25 permits the defendant to obtain an order from a superior court directing that a misdemeanor charge be submitted to the grand jury if the interests of justice so require. These statutes discuss only the jurisdiction of local criminal courts, which lose the power to resolve a case if divestiture occurs. The provisions neither state nor imply that a superior court lacks jurisdiction until a case is indicted.
The divestiture statutes address the ability of the parties-the People or the defendant-to effectuate the removal of a case to a superior court such as Supreme Court. They do not address, much less revoke, the transfer powers granted to Supreme Court and UCS administrators in the Constitution and Judiciary Law § 211. To the contrary, the fact that CPL 170.25 permits a defendant to apply to Supreme Court for an order requiring a misdemeanor charge that is pending in a local criminal court to be submitted to a grand jury belies defendants’ argument that Supreme Court lacks jurisdiction over such a charge until it is incorporated in an indictment-if Supreme Court could not exercise subject matter jurisdiction over unindicted misdemeanor charges, it would not be able to entertain a CPL 170.25 application.
Defendants’ contention-credited by the First Department-that CPL 210.05 is a jurisdictional provision that precludes Supreme Court from trying unindicted misdemeanor cases must also be rejected. CPL 210.05 directs that the only methods of prosecuting an offense in a superior court are by an indictment filed therewith by a grand jury or by a superior court information filed therewith by a district attorney. Defendants urge us to interpret the provision as a divestiture statute that prevents Supreme Court from exercising subject matter jurisdiction over any criminal case until there has been an indictment or defendant has agreed to waive indictment and be prosecuted by SCI.
By its terms, the statute discusses how a case may be prosecuted, thereby imposing a limitation on prosecutorial power. It restricts the methods by which a prosecutor may pursue charges, precluding the People from seeking a trial in the superior courts without first obtaining an indictment or a defendant’s consent to waive indictment and proceed by SCI. The statute neither mentions nor purports to curtail the concurrent trial jurisdiction granted to Supreme Court elsewhere in CPL 10.20, 10.30.
The court’s determination that CPL 210.05 was intended to do nothing more than restrict prosecutorial authority is consistent with the legislative history of the provision, which predated the CPL. In 1941, the Legislature amended the predecessor to CPL 210.05-Code of Criminal Procedure § 222, entitled “Crimes; how prosecuted”-to contain substantially the same restriction that it includes today, directing that all crimes prosecuted in the supreme court, or in a county court must be prosecuted by indictment. The purpose of the restriction was to conform the statute to our holding in People ex rel. Battista v Christian, a case decided at a time when article I, § 6 unqualifiedly precluded any criminal defendant from being tried on a capital or felony offense absent indictment by a grand jury.
CPL 210.05 can properly be read as a nonjurisdictional limitation on prosecutorial authority. The defendants’ alternative interpretation would not control even if it was plausible. Where the language of a statute is susceptible of two constructions, the courts will adopt that which avoids injustice, hardship, constitutional doubts or other objectionable results.
The general rule is that the Legislature may not curtail the concurrent subject matter jurisdiction vested in Supreme Court in article VI, § 7. If the court were to adopt defendants’ view that CPL 210.05 divests Supreme Court of its power to try unindicted misdemeanor cases-cases that the New York City Criminal Court, another UCS court, is permitted to hear-a serious question would be raised about the constitutional validity of CPL 210.05. Faced with the choice between an interpretation that is consistent with the Constitution and one that creates a potential constitutional infirmity, courts are to choose the former.
Given its language and legislative history, the court rejects the notion that CPL 210.05 precludes Supreme Court from exercising trial jurisdiction over misdemeanor cases concurrent with other UCS courts. To the extent defendants challenge the transfer of their cases on equal protection grounds, this contention also lacks merit because defendants have not identified any respect in which they received less favorable treatment in Supreme Court than they would have received had their nonjury trials been conducted in the New York City Criminal Court.
Therefore, the court holds that Supreme Court had subject matter jurisdiction over defendants’ misdemeanor cases.
Kings County Criminal Defense Attorneys and Kings County Domestic Violence Attorneys at Stephen Bilkis & Associates are experts in these fields of law. If you know anyone faced with the issues mentioned in the case above, please recommend us. Call our toll free number or visit our firm. We are always ready to extend our legal services.