[SUMMARY] | [ISSUE & DISPOSITION] | [AUTHORITIES CITED] | [COMMENTARY]
Defendant was indicted on three counts of murder in the second degree and one count of rape in the first degree in connection with the July 1993 death of a woman in upstate New York. The trial court allowed the admission of testimony that the Defendant had a prior conviction for rape, such prior conviction resulting from the Defendant's decision to enter an Alford plea. Under an Alford plea, a defendant may plead guilty to an offense, even though the defendant maintains his innocence, if the defendant reasonably believes, and the record establishes, that the State has sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction. See North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 37 (1970). Defendant was found guilty of one count of murder in the second degree. The Appellate Division affirmed the conviction, and the Court of Appeals granted leave to appeal. Among other things, Defendant argued on appeal that the introduction for impeachment purposes of evidence of the prior conviction based on an Alford plea was in error.
Whether evidence of a prior conviction is admissible for impeachment purposes when that conviction arose from entry of an Alford plea.
Yes. Within the limits applicable to the admission of evidence concerning any other conviction, a defendant may be properly cross-examined for impeachment purposes about a previous conviction regardless of the fact that it arose from an Alford plea.
The "nature and extent of cross-examination have always been subject to the sound discretion of the Trial Judge." People v. Sandoval, 34 N.Y.2d 371, 374 (N.Y. 1974) (citing People v. Schwartzman, 24 N.Y.2d 241 (N.Y.), cert. denied, 396 U.S. 846 (1969)). An accused may be cross-examined regarding a prior criminal conviction as long as it is logically related to the credibility of the accused as a witness. Id.
When determining whether an accused has been convicted of a felony, the courts have held that the acceptance of a plea bargain is equivalent to a conviction. See In re Hopfl, 48 N.Y.2d 859, 860 (N.Y. 1979). Previously under New York case law, a conviction resulting from an Alford plea formed the basis for a defendant attorney's disbarment. See In re Hopfl, 48 NY2d at 860. Additionally, a conviction resulting from an Alford plea has determined predicate felon status for sentencing purposes. See People v. Geier, 534 N.Y.S.2d 626, 627 (App. Div. 1988). Before Miller, however, the New York Court of Appeals had not clearly articulated whether a conviction based on an Alford plea may be used for impeachment purposes.
The Miller court clarifies, and perhaps enlarges, the potential effects of a defendant's decision to enter an Alford plea. Although a defendant making an Alford plea is not admitting guilt, such a plea results in a conviction. The Miller court holds that an Alford plea conviction may be treated exactly as a guilty verdict or admission of guilt, and it may be admitted as evidence for impeachment purposes. Thus the effect of Miller is that a defendant who makes an Alford plea clearly risks having the resulting conviction used against him in subsequent criminal trials.
The Miller court does not explicitly indicate the extent to which details underlying the Alford plea conviction may be used. The Court of Appeals simply affirms the trial court's limiting instruction that all facts and evidence regarding the conviction be precluded from testimony. As the issue was not before the Miller court, it remains unclear whether, or under what circumstances, courts would allow details of the prior Alford plea conviction to be used for impeachment purposes.
Furthermore, the Court of Appeals' decision permitting the use of an Alford plea conviction for impeachment purposes may affect defendants in other jurisdictions which do not allow such use of an Alford plea conviction. As indicated below, New York and Connecticut are the only states to have clearly accepted the use of an Alford plea conviction for impeachment purposes. This may lead to confusion among defendants who are considering entering an Alford plea in one state, but who are unsure of the full effect of such plea as the resulting conviction may be used for impeachment purposes in subsequent criminal proceedings in some, but not all, other jurisdictions.
The Court of Appeals cites and follows the rule set forth in the Connecticut case State v. Simms, 557 A.2d 914 (Conn.), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 843 (1989). The Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that statements made in an Alford plea are admissible to impeach a defendant in cross-examination. In Simms, excerpts from the defendant's Alford plea were used to impeach the defendant's testimony. The court wanted to expressly avoid a "manipulation of the plea bargaining process" which would allow defendants' use of an Alford plea to prevent their impeachment in a later proceeding. Other courts have used a similar approach. See generally, Susan Demske, Michele L. Tyler, Lynn E. Fullerton 85 Geo. L.J. 983, Twenty- sixth Annual Review of Criminal Procedure: II.
The New York Court of Appeals appears to have been the first state court since the Simms Court to address directly the use of an Alford plea conviction for impeachment purposes in subsequent proceedings. The Supreme Court of Missouri, in M.A.B. v. Nicely, 909 S.W.2d 669 (Mo. 1995), indicated that "convicted" for purposes of a statute conferring an absolute right to impeach a witness with his prior criminal convictions should be interpreted broadly. Id. at 671. However, the Nicely court held that the term "conviction" does not include a plea or finding of guilt where imposition of sentence is suspended. Id. In that case, the defendant's prior Alford plea to a charge of sodomy and subsequent suspension of sentence was not considered a "conviction" for impeachment purposes. The Nicely court stated: "[Defendant] contends that because the court in which he entered the Alford plea suspended the imposition of sentence, he has not been convicted for purposes of impeachment under the statute. He is correct." Id. Presumably, if the defendant had been sentenced following his Alford plea, such conviction would have been admissible for impeachment purposes; however, the Nicely court failed to state this explicitly and the facts of the case did not support such a holding.