Defendant was charged of the felony of possessing a quantity of a narcotic drug, heroin, or heroin possession, with intent to sell; a drug crime. A New York Criminal Lawyer defendant had pleaded guilty to an attempt to commit the crime charged (criminal law) and, with the court’s consent, had withdrawn such guilty plea and substituted a plea of not guilty. Defendant was then convicted by a jury in Queens County Court.
Although defendant as his own witness at the trial denied his guilt, he does not now dispute that the People’s proof was enough for conviction. However, defendant does press on the herein court the point made by the dissenting Appellate Division Justices that it was injustice and error to lay before the jury as evidence of his guilt his earlier plea of guilty which the court had allowed him to withdraw.
The issue here is whether or not a plea of guilty withdrawn by leave of court is admissible against the defendant on the trial of the issue arising on a substituted plea of not guilty.
A New York Criminal Lawyer said the court concludes in the negative.
The weight of reason is against the introduction in evidence of a plea of guilty withdrawn on order of court granting leave and permitting the substitution of a plea of not guilty. As noted by one Justice of the Court, a plea of guilty differs in purpose and effect from a mere admission or an extra-judicial confession; it is itself a conviction. Like a verdict of a jury, it is conclusive. More is not required; the court has nothing to do but give judgment and sentence. Out of just consideration for persons accused of a crime, courts are careful that a plea of guilty shall not be accepted unless made voluntarily after proper advice and with full understanding of the consequences. But, on timely application, the court will vacate a plea of guilty shown to have been unfairly obtained or given through ignorance, fear or inadvertence. The court, in the exercise of its discretion, will permit one accused to substitute a plea of not guilty and have a trial if for any reason the granting of the privilege seems fair and just. The effect of the court’s order permitting the withdrawal was to adjudge that the plea of guilty be held for naught. Its subsequent use as evidence against petitioner was in direct conflict with that determination. When the plea was annulled it ceased to be evidence. As a practical matter, it could not be received in evidence without putting petitioner in a dilemma utterly inconsistent with the determination of the court awarding him a trial. The withdrawal of a plea of guilty is a poor privilege, if, notwithstanding its withdrawal, it may be used in evidence under the plea of not guilty.’
The question is not whether a plea of guilty is a confession of guilt and provable as such. Of course it is. However, the inquiry is into something quite different. It’s the question of whether it is lawful in New York for a court, after allowing a guilty plea to be set at naught, to allow the jury to use that same plea as proof of guilt. Such a distortion of purpose should not be allowed. The State of New York should scorn to make use of it. As the Federal Court of Appeals put it, ‘When a court allows a defendant to withdraw a plea of ‘guilty’, it is because the court finds that circumstances exist which make it unfair to hold him to it. Such circumstances make it equally unfair to use it against him as an admission.
The danger and injustice of the affirmative use of a withdrawn guilty plea could not be better illustrated than by the herein record. Not only was the former plea allowed in evidence on the People’s case over objection but the court’s charge discussed it at length and referred to the plea as in the nature of a confession and to a confession as being a direct acknowledgment of guilt. With this proof admitted, defendant was in effect forced to take the stand. Defendant swore that he had pleaded guilty on his lawyer’s advice, although protesting innocence, because the lawyer had promised to get him a suspended sentence. The dire impact on the defendant of all this discussion of his previous guilty plea was then made worse by the prosecution’s use as a witness of the lawyer (not trial counsel) who had acted for defendant at the time of the guilty plea. Defendant objected to his former lawyer’s taking the stand but the court held that defendant by giving evidence as to his dealings with the lawyer had waived the attorney-client privilege. So the lawyer was allowed to testify that the defendant had admitted to him the possession of the narcotic drug. The herein court need not pass on the correctness of the court’s ruling as to waiver. The court need not go so far as one Justice opined: “Using a guilty plea as evidence forces a defendant in substance, if not in form, to testify against himself”. The court should say flatly and finally that a plea so allowed to be withdrawn is out of the case forever and for all purposes.
Accordingly, judgment is reversed and a new trial is ordered.
Drug possession crimes are rampant these days and the government has been trying very hard to prevent or lessen its occurrence. As we all know, drugs corrupt the minds of its users and sometimes leads to the commission of other crimes, including theft, or sex crimes. However, those charged with drug crimes aren’t stripped of their rights. They are entitled to all the rights available to an accused. To know more, have a free consultation with Stephen Bilkis & Associates. Talk to a Queens Drug Lawyer or a Queens Criminal Lawyer from our firm.