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NY Court of Appeals asserts standard for challenging sentences

Third Department has adopted new standard

The New York State Court of Appeals has dismissed a case that challenged the standard used by a mid-level state appeals court to decide appeals challenging imposed sentences because the court has already corrected the standard used.

In a concurring opinion, Judge Rowan Wilson wrote that the “Third Department has imposed an erroneous legal standard on criminal defendants seeking a reduction of their sentences in the interest of justice.”

Clea Weiss, the attorney for appellant, Dakota W. Baldwin, pointed out “countless cases” before the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court, Third Department, including his own, “in which the Third Department employed a test requiring a showing of extraordinary circumstances or abuse of discretion for it to exercise its interest of justice jurisdiction to modify a sentence,” according to the Court of Appeals decision.

Weiss argued that the Third Department’s test “constitutes an incorrect legal standard.”

She argued that the Third Department’s requirement that a defendant show a clear abuse of discretion or extraordinary circumstances is contrary to both our case law and the practices of the other Appellate Division departments.

In People v Delgado, the Court of Appeals emphasized that the Appellate Division’s authority to modify a sentence can be used when, “if the interest of justice warrants, without deference to the sentencing court,” Wilson wrote.

Weiss argued that the Third Department’s standard is an “outlier.”

“It is used by no other department, and has been expressly rejected by the Fourth Department,” Wilson wrote.

“A criminal defendant need not show extraordinary circumstances or an abuse of discretion by the sentencing court in order to obtain a sentence reduction,” Wilson wrote.

While Baldwin’s appeal became moot, Wilson wrote that “further explanation is required to address why his appeal does not meet the mootness exception.”

“The maximum term of Mr. Baldwin’s sentence has expired. Thus, the issue of whether his sentence is excessive “may not properly be decided by this court unless it is found to be within the exception to the doctrine which permits the courts to preserve for review important and recurring issues which, by virtue of their relatively brief existence, would be rendered otherwise nonreviewable,” Wilson wrote.

But this issue is not likely to recur.

“The Third Department, to its great credit, apparently noticed the pendency of this appeal and the issue it raised, after which it corrected its longstanding use of the wrong standard, making repetition of the error unlikely,” Wilson wrote.

Baldwin’s initial brief was filed with the Court of Appeals in May 2022. No Third Department case since then have used the “abuse of discretion or extraordinary circumstances” standard. Each has used the “unduly harsh or severe” standard.

“Thus, the exception to the mootness doctrine does not apply. In a way, then, Mr. Baldwin has prevailed on the merits of his argument even though his appeal is moot,” Wilson wrote.

Although the panel agreed with Baldwin, the appeal was dismissed on the ground that the issue has become moot.

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