New York Court of Appeals: People v. Fernandez

The issue on appeal in this case was whether the accusatory instrument in a traffic violation stop constituted a facially sufficient simplified traffic information, even though it was titled “Complaint/Information” and contained factual information. The defendant, Fernandez, was arrested on charges of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle and had thirteen prior license suspensions.  The instrument in question was a four-by-eight inch paper titled “Complaint/Information” which listed the violation of the Vehicle and Traffic Law (“VTL”), the defendant’s personal information, and a description of the incident, as well as, a signed statement by the arresting officer.  The defendant alleged that the instrument omitted an element of the offense charged, and therefore was insufficient to serve as a complaint upon which he could be arraigned and sentenced.

The defendant pointed to People v. Casey, which stated that the title of a document controls, and therefore since the document in question here was titled “Complaint/Information” it was a misdemeanor complaint. 95 N.Y.2d 354, 740 N.E.2d 233, 717 N.Y.S.2d 88 (2000). However, the defendant drew this conclusion from a side comment that distinguished instruments including hearsay statements from those without.  The Court held that Casey did not, in fact, apply in this case and that holding title to be dispositive would contradict the Legislature’s intent that no single part of a form be dispositive. The Court further pointed out that a simplified traffic information need only “substantially conform to the requirements of the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles.” Therefore, as long as a form is adequately detailed to prevent the defendant from being tried twice on the same offense, it would substantially conform.

The defendant also argued that the form in the case did not comply with a state statute VTL § 207, that authorizes the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles to prescribe the form of a uniform summons and complaint in traffic violation cases.  However, the Court found that that statute does not apply to simplified traffic information in New York City, the location of the traffic violation.  Rather, the relevant statute, VTL § 226, authorizes the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles to prescribe the form of a summons and complaint in traffic cases and does not include a sample illustrated form nor the express language “simplified traffic information.”  The form used in this case was the form routinely used in a simplified traffic information for parts of New York City to prosecute traffic misdemeanors in criminal court.  Therefore, the defendant’s accusatory instrument substantially complied with the requirements of the statute and was a facially sufficient simplified traffic information.

The dissent explained that the accusatory instrument used in the defendant’s case did not sufficiently resemble the statutory template for a simplified traffic information. Further, the dissent contests the majority’s interpretation of Casey and emphasizes the principle from that case: an instrument that purports to be a misdemeanor information is a misdemeanor information. In conclusion, the dissent would find that the instrument was not a simplified traffic information with some superfluous information, but an insufficient misdemeanor information, and therefore, should have been dismissed as jurisdictionally defective.

20 N.Y.3d 44, 980 N.E.2d 491, 956 N.Y.S.2d 443 (2012)

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