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Sentencing Court Erred in Unsealing the Court Record Related to a Different, Unrelated Proceeding – People v Anonymous, 2020 NY Slip Op 01113


When it comes to sentencing in a criminal case, a court is not allowed to consider a proceeding in which the defendant was ultimately acquitted or that was otherwise resolved in favor of the defendant.  In this case the Court of Appeals considered whether the Appellate Division properly concluded that the defendant in a criminal possession of a controlled substance  case was not entitled to resentencing when the sentencing court improperly considered unsealed records related to another criminal proceeding that resulted in the defendant being acquitted.

In this drug crime case, the defendant pleaded guilty to criminal possession of a controlled substance in the fourth degree. The deal he struck with the prosecution was that in exchange for pleading guilty he would receive a sentence of four years of imprisonment followed by three years of post-release supervision.  However, there was a condition to the defendant receiving this sentence:  he had to stay out of trouble. In other words, if the defendant committed another crime, the sentencing agreement was void.

Before the sentencing hearing the defendant was again arrested and was prosecuted for another crime. Had he been convicted, this would have been an obvious violation of the plea agreement. However, he was ultimately acquitted and the transcript of the trial was sealed  pursuant to CPL 160.50.  Under New York’s sealing law, under certain circumstances a criminal record is hidden from public view and from most government agencies. However, law enforcement can access the records, as can the courts and certain agencies.

Despite the acquittal, when it was time for sentencing the prosecutor told the court that the defendant violated the sentencing condition, voiding the agreement. As a result, the prosecutor sought an enhanced sentence for the defendant.  The prosecutor argued that even though the defendant was not convicted, his testimony in the case was evidence that he had was involved in criminal activity.  To support his argument he asked the court to unseal the record from the case in the interest of justice as the record was relevant to the defendant’s request to be sentenced under the terms of the plea deal. Over the defendant’s objection, the court granted the prosecutor’s request. Ultimately the defendant was sentenced to 8 years in prison instead of the 4 years required by the deal. The defendant appealed.

While the Appellate Division agreed that the sentencing court erred in unsealing the records, citing People v Patterson (78 NY2d 711 [1991]), it did not agree that as a result the defendant should be resentenced because the defendant had indeed violated a condition of the plea deal that he was required to stay out of trouble. The defendant again appealed.

The Court of Appeals disagreed with the Appellate Division.  It looked at the mandate of the sealing law.  The sealing law required that when records are sealed, the arrest and the prosecution are to viewed as a “nullity”—like they never happened.  The point is for the entire incident to be erased from the person’s criminal history so that it has no impact. If the arrest and prosecution is supposed to be treated as if they never happened, it was clearly an error for the sentencing court to unseal them.  Further, it was an error for the contents of the unsealed records to be considered for purposes of sentencing.

The prosecutor argued that this case falls under an exception to the sealing law that allows records to be unsealed by a law enforcement agency if it is in the interests of justice to do so.  See Matter of Katherine B. v Cataldo (5 NY3d 196 [2005]). The Court of Appeals was not persuaded by this argument for a variety of reasons one of which is that the prosecutor is not a law enforcement agency within the meaning of the statute.  Plus, as explained in Katherine B., New York courts do not allow sealed cases to be used for purposes of sentencing in another matter.

The Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the Appellate Division, essentially ordering the Supreme Court to resentence the defendant based on the terms of the original sentencing agreement.


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