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The risk for deportation of a non-U.S. citizen accused of a low-level crime is enough to guarantee that individual have a trial by jury rather than a bench trial, the New York Court of Appeals said in a decision this week.

The decision, over Sixth Amendment fair trial rights under the U.S. Constitution for persons facing deportation, was one of first impression for the Court of Appeals. It was brought before the court by Saylor Suazo, a noncitizen who was found guilty in a bench trial on various charges related to an alleged assault.

The Bronx District Attorney said she was considering taking an appeal on the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court since it was decided on federal constitutional grounds.

The key issue in the case was the gradation of the criminal charge Suazo had been tried upon.  A section of the state’s criminal procedure law, CPL 340.40, allows a defendant to be denied a trial by jury in New York City if the maximum penalty of a charge is less than six months in jail. The same rule does not apply outside New York City.

Suazo was initially charged with several crimes related to the alleged assault, the most serious being class A misdemeanor charges. The state’s penal law assigns a maximum penalty of one year in prison for that level of crime.

Prosecutors with the Bronx DA’s Office moved in open court to reduce those charges to class B misdemeanor crimes, which instead carry a maximum penalty of three months in jail.

The trial court granted that motion, which meant Suazo was able to be tried without a jury. Suazo then moved the judge to allow him a jury trial, arguing that the possibility of his deportation following a conviction would make his punishment serious enough to require a trial by jury under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment. His motion was rejected and he was found guilty by the trial court.

Associate Judge Leslie Stein of the Court of Appeals sided with Suazo’s argument in the high court’s opinion Tuesday.

“It is now beyond cavil that the penalty of deportation is among the most extreme and that it may, in some circumstances, rival incarceration in its loss of liberty,” Stein wrote. “Accordingly, we hold that a noncitizen defendant charged with a deportable crime is entitled to a jury trial under the Sixth Amendment, notwithstanding that the maximum authorized sentence is a term of imprisonment of six months or less.”

Mark Zeno, assistant attorney-in-charge at the Center for Appellate Litigation in Manhattan, represented Suazo before the Court of Appeals. He said when reached on Wednesday that they were pleased with the outcome.

“We’re pleased that the Court of Appeals recognized that the devastating penalty of deportation makes a crime serious within the meaning of the Sixth Amendment,” Zeno said.

Noah Chamoy argued before the court for the Bronx DA’s Office. Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark, a Democrat, criticized the decision in a statement and said her office is considering bringing the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, which would hold rank over the state’s highest court in matters of immigration law.

“We understand that while the Court of Appeals addresses the harsh realities presented by the possible consequence of deportation for noncitizens, its decision presents conflicts with existing Supreme Court precedent that must be resolved,” Clark said. “This decision creates ramifications, including serious backlogs and disparities in the administration of justice, for the courts of this state. We are considering taking the case to the Supreme Court to address the crucial questions this decision presents.”

Stein addressed concerns over backlog and other issues in her opinion, saying that the burden will still be on the defendant to establish whether the consequence of their potential conviction would be enough to mandate a trial by jury. In situations where prosecutors and noncitizens disagree about the severity of an outcome, the court will be tasked with resolving that conflict.

“We emphasize that it is the defendant’s burden to overcome the presumption that the crime charged is petty and establish a Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial,” Stein wrote. “In the event the parties disagree as to the potential immigration consequences of a conviction, we are confident that our courts are competent to resolve such questions as they are presented.”

Prosecutors had argued before the Court of Appeals last month that a defendant’s possible deportation is merely a civil collateral consequence of their conviction and should not be contemplated for analysis under the Sixth Amendment.

Stein did not dispute that deportation is technically a civil collateral consequence of a state conviction, but said such an outcome could not be considered entirely separate from a defendant’s criminal proceeding.

“Ultimately, even if deportation is technically collateral, it is undoubtedly a severe statutory penalty that flows from the federal government as the result of a state criminal conviction,” Stein wrote.

Associate Judges Michael Garcia and Rowan Wilson dissented in separate opinions.

Garcia wrote that the majority, contrary to Stein’s opinion, actually strayed from precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court for federal consequences, like deportation, to not play into a defendant’s right to a jury trial in state court.

“There is now a split in terms of how the Sixth Amendment right to jury should be understood, opening the door to further litigation, in both state and federal courts, over exactly which collateral consequences may make an otherwise ‘petty’ offense ‘serious,’ “ Garcia wrote. “It is doubtful that importing federal immigration law into the penalty analysis was something the Supreme Court intended when it made the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury for ‘serious’ offenses applicable to the states.”

Wilson provided a similar view in his dissent, but also suggested that the issue could be avoided if the state Legislature amended the section of the criminal procedure law that provides a carveout for defendants in New York City. If that carveout were eliminated, the issue may be moot, Wilson wrote.

“All persons in New York State are entitled to a jury trial if charged with a B misdemeanor, unless they reside in New York City, in which case they have no such right,” Wilson wrote. “Were the Legislature to extend that right to all New Yorkers, the problems underlying this issue would vanish.”

Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Associate Judges Jenny Rivera, Eugene Fahey and Paul Feinman joined in Stein’s majority opinion.


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