One of the keys to a fair trial, particularly on the state level, is the extent to which the prosecution is able to use a defendant’s prior criminal history, immoral acts, or vicious conduct.
In many cases, defense counsel may have a client who is extremely credible and may have a persuasive story to tell the jury. However, the decision on whether to advise the defendant to testify at trial or not will hinge on the decision made during a pretrial hearing called Sandoval.
People v. Sandoval, 34 NY2d 371 (1974)
In the late ’60s early ’70s the defendant was charged with murder by the state of New York. That defendant had a prior criminal history that included various traffic offenses, alleged acts of disorderly conduct, and other convictions.
Defense Motions: After the presentation of the prosecution’s case, defense counsel for the defendant in that case – whose last name was Sandoval – made an application to the trial court seeking to limit the prosecution’s freedom or ability to fully place the defendant’s prior criminal history and/or previous immoral acts before the jury.
Ruling on Motions: Defense counsel in that case was actually successful in having the court limit the amount of evidence related to prior acts of the defendant that the prosecution would be able to submit to the jury in the event that the defendant testified at trial. The court limited the prosecution to listening to Mr. Sandoval’s testimony in the event that he did in fact testified solely regarding a prior instance of disorderly conduct.
Outcome of the Case: Mr. Sandoval was ultimately convicted at trial an appealed his conviction arguing, among other things, that the court should have fully excluded all previous criminal convictions, instances of immoral conduct, and vicious acts.
Why is Sandoval Significant?
For the first time in New York State jurisprudence, the New York State Court of Appeals addressed this issue. The New York State Court of Appeals issued a detailed decision explaining why they agreed with the trial judge’s ruling and with the methods and means that the trial judge had used in order to arrive at his decision.
However, although the Court did ultimately affirm Mr. Sandoval’s conviction, this was the first time that the high state court in New York had clearly stated that this issue should be addressed at a pretrial hearing and not during trial.
How are Sandoval Hearings Handled Now?
Since the Sandoval decision, New York State trial courts have customarily held Sandoval hearings immediately before trial at which point a defense attorney and the defendant should have already made a decision regarding whether to defend it should testify at trial or not.
This is one issue that as continued to place the defendant at a disadvantage when preparing for defense because a definitive decision as yet to be made during the preparation stages guarding what would be admissible and what wouldn’t be should the defendant testify at trial.
Why is Sandoval Important to Criminal Defendants?
A Sandoval decision is extremely important in many criminal cases because there is no clear definition regarding what crime immoral conduct or prior vicious acts would satisfy the probate value standard applied when assessing which prior criminal conduct would be admissible should fit the testifier the extent of its admissibility and whether the admission of that evidence is so prejudicial to the defendant that it outweighs the probative value.
A particular example would be a defendant charged with a violent offender who has a prior criminal history. This includes acts of dishonesty but also acts involving threats to another individual, drug crimes, and fraud.
In a lot of instances, from a practical standpoint, once a strategy has been prepared and the defendant has decided to proceed to trial, trial judges will then (out of the earshot of a jury) conduct a Sandoval hearing.
What Does a Sandoval Hearing Consist of?
What a Sandoval hearing consists of – from a practical standpoint – is the prosecution running down a list of prior convictions, documented immoral acts, or vicious conduct attributed to the defendant. Defense counsel would then oppose the admission of any of the information and then proceed to specifically address the crimes (or acts) one–by–one on a factual basis.
What Type of Information Would Defense Counsel Oppose?
Generally, any criminal conduct that exceeds 10–years is considered “stale” and “inadmissible” for the purposes of Sandoval. The reason why conduct beyond 10-years is prohibited under Sandoval is primarily based upon related statutes.
The reason for that is, under other New York State statutes, after an individual has been free of supervision, probation, arrest, and criminal conduct for a period of 10–years, that person is once again considered a first-time offender.
Are There Any Exceptions to Sandoval Material?
There were few blanket exemptions for Sandoval besides the 10–year limitation period.
Other defenses are much more facts specific:
Probative Value is Outweighed by the Prejudice to the Defendant
It would include defendants who are arguing that, although a particular instance of criminal conduct could have probative value and prove a defendants willingness to be dishonest and thereby raised questions regarding the defendant’s credibility, that the conduct is so similar in nature that, if the court allowed the prosecution to elicit testimony from the defendant, it would prejudice the defendant by denying them a fair trial.
This is because the particular crime would, in all likelihood, indicate to the jury that the defendant has a propensity to commit a particular type of crime.
Drug and Alcohol Addiction
Another defense that you see coming against Sandoval application is an argument that the criminal conduct at issue was sparked by drug addiction and usage or was an impulsive crime.
Courts have long held that prior criminal acts based upon a defendant’s drug addiction or his impulsive bears no weight toward a defendant’s credibility and therefore that type of conduct should not be admitted on the Sandoval.
In preparing for a criminal trial it is very important that defense counsel have in-depth conversations with his client regarding:
- prior criminal history;
- immoral bat acts; and
- Vicious or violent conduct
While the defendant is on trial for the current allegation, an improperly handled Sandoval hearing could result in evidence being elicited from the defendant in front of a jury that may assist the prosecution in obtaining a conviction that they may not otherwise obtain.
I’ve seen judges during Sandoval proceedings make decisions that would limit the prosecution’s ability to elicit facts on the underlying criminal conviction but would allow the prosecution to elicit the type of crime that the defendant was convicted of and the date of conviction.
It is those types of decisions, in many instances, that has been the most dangerous to criminal defendants because it leaves a lot to be pondered in the mind of the jurors.
An example of a judicial ruling where more facts would benefit the defendant as opposed to fewer facts would be a situation where a defendant (our client) was previously convicted of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the seventh degree.
A judge’s decision limited the prosecution’s ability to go into the underlying facts of that case. The reason for that was because the facts of that case could lead the jurors to believe that a defendant possessed the potential amount of a narcotic drug on a previous occasion.
In the juror’s mind, the ruling in the current case may then be decided by the defendant’s past actions – because if he did it once, he could do it again, right?
In reality, it may have been a defendant who had one of one or two percocet that were for personal use and the individual did not have a prescription for. But the judges Sandoval ruling leaves it open for jurors to assume their own factual scenario for that conviction.
What is the Takeaway from Sandoval?
In short, while there are some protections in place intended to preserve the defendant’s right to a fair trial if the defendant is considering testifying at trial and could be a credible witness on his or her own behalf, it is very important for counsel to be vigilant and not underestimate the damage that could be caused if a Sandoval hearing and is not properly conducted.
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