Local Courts in Westchester County

The hierarchy and procedures of criminal courts in Westchester County varies greatly from their counterparts in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and throughout New York City. Rather than a centralized lower court, the Criminal Court, as in New York City, each municipality throughout Westchester County has its own local court where misdemeanors and unindicted felonies are heard. These local courts each have their own local elected judges, court staff, procedures and other nuances. Some courts hear cases exclusively in the evenings, some in the mornings, some only once per month, and others run all day every day. If you are charged with a crime in Westchester County, having an attorney who is familiar with the unique intricacies of the justice system in the County, and the local procedures and quirks of the many local Justice Courts can have a huge impact on your case.

These local courts are all generically referred to as Justice Courts, but they can go by different identifying titles, such as the Greenburgh Town Court, Elmsford Village Court, or White Plains City Court. Whatever title the particular court may go by, they essentially all have the same function. These courts handle traffic infraction cases and speeding tickets, they handle misdemeanor cases from arrest to sentence, and they handle felony cases unless and until those cases are indicted and are accordingly transferred to County Court in White Plains.

This can create a difficult system to manage for any person charged with a criminal offense, for any criminal defense attorney, and even for the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office. In light of this, the Westchester DA’s Office has local branch offices that are each responsible for handling the criminal cases in the various local Justice Courts of a particular region of the County. Those branch officers are Mt. Vernon, Yonkers, New Rochelle, Rye, White Plains, Greenburgh, Yorktown which covers Peekskill as well as other towns and villages, and Northern Westchester which covers Mount Pleasant, North Castle, Mount Kisco, Pound Ridge, Lewisboro, Somers and North Salem.

A lawyer who is familiar with the dynamics of this complex system, and the unique practical difficulties and complications this network of Justice Courts can create, will be able to effectively guide you and advise you on the best choices to make throughout the course of your criminal case.

This blog entry is not an attempt to substitute for an examination of your particular case by your own criminal defense lawyer who will determine what is best for your case. Instead, this entry can give you the foundation to better understand the local courts in Westchester County. To better understand crimes, possible defenses, and how you can best protect yourself, consult with your criminal lawyer.

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What is a “Dangerous Instrument?”

The term “dangerous instrument” is used throughout the New York State Penal Law as an elements of certain criminal charges, typically violent felonies such as Assault in the Second Degree, Penal Law 125.05(2). From the context of the criminal statutes in which the term is used, it is easy to understand that the term “dangerous instrument” is basically referring to the use of a weapon. But what qualifies as a weapon? The Penal Law defines “dangerous instrument” as “any instrument, article or substance…which, under the circumstances in which it is used…is readily capable of causing death or other serious physical injury.” This standard requires some unpacking. Clearly, a large kitchen knife is capable of causing death or serious physical injury if it is used against another person. On the other end of the spectrum, it might be possible to seriously injure someone with a paperclip, but is that really “readily capable” of causing a serious injury. The appellate Court recently addressed such a borderline case in People v. Zeman, 2017 NY Slip Op 09051 (4th Dept. 2017).

In Zeman, the defendant was convicted after trial of Assault in the Second Degree based, in part, on his use of a broom in the assault on the victim. While it is clear from the definition of “dangerous instrument” that the manner in which an item is used, and the context in which it is used, is critically important to a determination of whether or not the item can be considered a “dangerous instrument,” it is equally clear that the item must meet some baseline of being something that is reasonably capable of actually causing serious physical injury. You might imagine that a paperclip could do a lot more damage than a broom in certain circumstances. In any event, the Court in Zeman held that a broom does indeed meet this baseline standard, and can be considered a dangerous instrument in the right circumstances, elevating what would otherwise be a misdemeanor charge to a violent felony punishable by state prison time.

It is safe to say, based on Zeman and other similar cases, that essentially anything can be considered a dangerous instrument in the right circumstances – a phone, a shoe, a broom, and yes, even a paperclip.

This blog entry is not an attempt to substitute for an examination of your particular case by your own criminal defense lawyer who will determine what is best for your case. Instead, this entry can give you the foundation to better understand violent felony offenses involving dangerous instruments. To better understand these crimes, possible defenses, and how you can best protect yourself, consult with your criminal lawyer.

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Scheme to Defraud and Proof of “Moral Certainty”

The criminal charge of Scheme to Defraud in New York often arises in the context of intricate and large-scale thefts. As such, there is typically a Grand Larceny or other theft-related offense accompanying the Scheme to Defraud charge on a felony complaint or indictment. While it is tempting to see this overlap and view a Scheme to Defraud charge as just another form of larceny, doing so can have disastrous consequences for any criminal defense. Scheme to Defraud is quite clearly a distinct charge, with its own unique nuances, related statutory rules, and methods of proof.

In People v. Cassandro, 2017 NY Slip Op 02515 (1st Dept. 2017), the appellate court recently addressed the issue of whether a trial judge must instruct a jury on the requirement of proof involving “moral certainty” as to a Scheme to Defraud charge. The “moral certainty” standard comes from New York State Penal Law 155.05(2)(d). This statute has to do with the various methods by which a prosecutor can prove that a defendant committed a larceny. One such method of proof, or theory of a larceny case, can be theft by a “false promise.” “A person obtains property by false promise when, pursuant to a scheme to defraud, he obtains property of another by means of a representation, express or implied, that he or a third person will in the future engage in particular conduct, and when he does not intend to engage in such conduct or, as the case may be, does not believe that the third person intends to engage in such conduct.” PL 155.04(2)(d). This sounds a lot like the charge of Scheme to Defraud. The statute even uses the words “scheme to defraud” in its description of this kind of larceny! When the prosecution is based on this theory of larceny, a prosecutor cannot simply rely on the fact that the promise was never actually performed. They need to prove more. The prosecutor must prove that the evidence is completely consistent with fraudulent intent, inconsistent with innocent intent, and exclude every other explanation for the defendant’s actions other than their intent and belief that the promise would never be performed to a “moral certainty.” This is a difficult standard for any prosecutor to meet. It requires evidence that not only proves the defendant’s guilty, but also disproves alternative explanations for the defendant’s conduct.

One would think that if the rationale for this is to protect the innocent defendant whose prosecution is based on a “false promise” from punishment for an innocent mistake, that this same reasoning would apply to protect the person who engaged in the same conduct but instead just happens to be charged with Scheme to Defraud which happens to be in a different section of the Penal Law.

The Court in Cassandro held that this is not the case. That, instead, the “moral certainty” standard and rule applies only to larceny charges under Article 155 of the New York State Penal Law, the Article in which the rule is found, and not to Scheme to Defraud, which is found in Article 190 of the Penal Law. The Court in Cassandro did not provide any rationale for its decision, other than to say that the “moral certainty” standard simply isn’t found in the Scheme to Defraud Statute, but that is the law. Failing to recognize this small distinction can have a large impact on trial strategy and the way in which a criminal defense attorney and his or her client approach a Scheme to Defraud case. Relying on this additional layer of protection would be unfounded and misguided, because it will not be there when the legal instructions are given to the jury before their deliberations.

This blog entry is not an attempt to substitute for an examination of your particular case by your own criminal defense lawyer who will determine what is best for your case. Instead, this entry can give you the foundation to better understand Scheme to Defraud offenses. To better understand these crimes, possible defenses, and how you can best protect yourself, consult with your criminal lawyer.

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