It may seem odd that a defendant would challenge a sentence in a criminal case on the ground that it was too lenient. However, that is exactly what happened in People v Francis. What makes this case even more odd is that the defendant moved to set aside a sentence that he already served nearly 30 years prior to when he filed the motion.
In 1988 the defendant was sentenced to six months in prison after pleading guilty to third-degree criminal possession of a weapon. In 2015, pursuant to CPL 440.20, the defendant filed a motion to set aside the sentence on the ground that it was illegally lenient. In addition to the 1988 conviction, over 15 year period the defendant had been convicted other crimes, but under aliases, including a 1982 nonviolent felony conviction. As a result, he received sentences that were more lenient than they should have been given his true criminal history.
In 1997 the defendant was again arrested. This time, after a jury trial, the defendant was convicted of robbery in the first degree, a violent felony. Based on his 1988 conviction as well as a 1991 conviction, the defendant was adjudicated a persistent violent felony offender and was sentenced to 23 years to life in prison.
In asking the court to overturn his 1988 conviction based on it being too lenient, the defendant’s strategy was to get the conviction thrown out, thus removing the basis for him being adjudicated a persistent violent felony offender. The basis for the motion to overturn the 1988 sentence was that it was illegal because the law required that because the defendant had a prior felony conviction, he should have been adjudicated a predicate felony offender. If he had been, he would have received a longer sentence. The shorter sentence that he did receive was “illegal” under the law.
The Supreme Court denied defendant’s motion pursuant to CPL 440.20 to set aside his 1988 sentence. While it may seem odd that the court would even consider setting aside a sentencing that occurred nearly 30 year ago and that the defendant had already served, the law allows it. CPL 440.20 (1) states that at “any time after the entry of a judgment, the court in which the judgment was entered may, upon motion of the defendant, set aside the sentence upon the ground that it was unauthorized, illegally imposed or otherwise invalid as a matter of law.”
The Supreme Court agreed with the defendant’s contention that the sentence was inappropriate and in violation of New York sentencing guidelines because he was not adjudicated a predicate felony offender, and as a result the defendant received a prison term that was shorter than the legislatively mandated term. However, the Supreme Court did not set aside the 1988 sentence because the defendant was not aggrieved by the improper sentencing. The defendant actually benefited from the error. The Appellate Division unanimously affirmed.
The defendant appealed to the Court of Appeals, arguing that he was indeed “adversely affected” because if the 1988 sentence is not overturned, he will receive will a significantly more harsh sentence for his 1997 conviction. When he agreed to plead guilty in 1988, he did so with the understanding that he faced no more than one year of prison. He was not aware of the impact of the pleading guilty on future proceedings. In other words, the defendant argues that his 1988 plea was not “knowing, voluntary, and intelligent.”
The Court of Appeals was not convinced by the defendant’s argument. First the court notes that the harms that the defendant refers to are speculative future harms contingent on how defendant litigates future proceedings. Such harms are not within the scope of the “adverse” effects contemplated by CPL 470.15 (1). Further, the court reminds the defendant that it was his own strategy to avoid harsh sentences by using aliases when committing a number of crimes over a 15-year period. The fact that his strategy eventually caught up with him is not an “adverse” effect within the meaning of CPL 470.15 (1).
The Court of Appeals affirmed the Appellate Division’s decision to deny the defendant’s motion to vacate his 1988 sentence.