New York Court of Appeals: People v. Best

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This case arises from the conviction of defendant Emil Best for endangering the welfare of a child.  The defendant appeals his conviction on the basis that his constitutional rights were violated because he was restrained during the course of his bench trial with no specific justification.  The Court of Appeals held that the rule governing visible restraints in jury trials applies equally to non-jury trials and the district court’s failure to state a basis for the restraint was error.  The Court did go on to hold, however, that the constitutional error in this case was harmless and the conviction was affirmed.

The defendant was charged with endangering the welfare of a child based on allegations that he offered a 12-year-old boy $50 for the boy to expose himself.  The defendant waived his Miranda rights and, in a written statement, admitted that he did make the offer.  The defendant subsequently appeared for a Sandoval hearing with his hands cuffed behind his back. Defense counsel requested the handcuffs be removed, but instead the defendant’s hands were merely cuffed in front.  At this point, the defendant also waived his right to a jury trial.  At the start of trial and each subsequent day after, defense counsel made the request to remove the cuffs and each day the defendant was cuffed in front.  The defendant alleged that this action violated his constitutional rights under Deck v. Missouri, where the Supreme Court held that the Constitution “forbids routine use of visible shackles during the guilt phase” of a trial and “permits the State to shackle a criminal defendant only in the presence of special need.” 544 U.S. 622, 626 (2005).  The defendant contended that no special need was shown and that his due process rights had been violated.

The State claimed that since a judge, rather than a jury, tried the defendant, this represented an important difference. However, the Court ruled this reasoning out as grounds for distinction.  The Court proceeded to outline the reasoning behind the ruling in Deck, stating that the psychological impact on a defendant being continually restrained is detrimental, as well as addressing the negative impact that the image of a handcuffed defendant has on the public’s perception.  While the district court offered no justification for ordering the defendant’s restraint, the Court applied the constitutional harmless error analysis and found that the constitutional error the district court made in restraining the defendant was harmless, where evidence of guilt was overwhelming and where there was no reasonable possibility that it affected the outcome of the trial.

19 N.Y.3d 739, 979 N.E.2d 1187, 955 N.Y.S.2d 860 (2012)

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