LIVINGSTON COUNTY – Defendant Joseph Harris challenged Livingston County Judge Dennis Cohen and the New York State Appellate Division Thursday morning when his guilty pleas were vacated and the District Attorney’s Office said that they will be taking him to trial.
Harris, 47, successfully appealed a guilty plea to felony Promoting Prison Contraband in January 2016. He served two years at the Livingston County Jail for this and felony Attempted Criminal Possession of a Weapon in the Third Degree in satisfaction of six other charges, but Livingston County Assistant District Attorney Justin Hill said that the DA’s Office is returning all of these charges to court and taking Harris to trial.
“This is an injustice. You’re disgusting, and you’re disgusting, and you’re disgusting,” said Harris to Judge Cohen, Hill, and Livingston County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Jeremy Slocum. “This is a complete injustice. I already served two years. I am seeking a change of venue because the police and the court are corrupt. I have an open lawsuit against Judge Cohen and Livingston County. This is a conflict of interests.”
Harris is waging a legal battle that began in 2013 when he says he nearly overdosed on pills and was involved in an altercation with Mount Morris Police and arrested for felony Menacing a Police Officer and several misdemeanors. Sheriff’s Deputies who were booking him at the Livingston County Jail found pieces of broken plastic in Harris’ clothing, which they considered contraband and charged him with felony Promoting Prison Contraband. He admits that he is guilty of the misdemeanors but maintained throughout his court appearances that he is innocent of the contraband charge. Judge Cohen accepted a guilty plea to the Contraband charge in 2014, but the Appellate Court ruled that the plea should not have been accepted, because at the time of the plea, Harris continued to maintain his innocence.
The Appellate Court ruled that the Contraband charge should be reinstated, and that the District Attorney’s Office had the discretion to bring back all of the former charges. Hill said in court on Thursday that his office intended to do just that.
However, Harris’ attorney, Assistant Public Defender Brittany Bennett, argued that the Appellate Court’s decision cited case law that does not establish a precedent for the District Attorney to vacate guilty pleas and pursue a new sentence.
“I believe that the Appellate Courts got it wrong and relied on cases not relating to Mr. Harris’, specifically People vs. Irwin and People vs. Farrar,” said Bennett. “I distinguished Mr. Harris’ case in that the sentence that was sought was served. In the interest of justice and fairness we are asking that the conviction not be vacated in its entirety. Mr. Harris has done a lot of good things and is doing well on his own now.”
“We’re just following through after the appeal,” said Hill. “He’s looking at a total of 16 years in prison. A condition of the original plea deal was that he did not have to plead guilty to Menacing a Police Officer, which is mandatory state prison time. We reduced the charges and agreed to local time instead of state prison. Now we are taking him to trial on that charge.”
Harris will return to Livingston County Court at a later date for further proceedings.