LIVINGSTON COUNTY – The NYS Supreme Court Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department overturned a Springwater man’s 2014 felony and misdemeanor drug convictions for an obscure but important procedural problem at trial.
On Oct. 22, 2014, following a bench trial, Livingston County Court Judge Robert Wiggins found Byron Buza, 34, guilty of felony Criminal Possession of Marihuana in the Second Degree and misdemeanor Criminal Possession of a Controlled Substance in the Seventh Degree and sentenced him to 4 months of weekends at the Livingston County Jail with work release, 5 years of probation, a 6-month license suspension and court fines and surcharges. More than two years later, the Appellate Division overturned both of those convictions and restored Buza’s presumption of innocence.
“This was a tremendous victory for Mr. Buza and we are pleased with the result,” said Dan Magill, Buza’s defense attorney.
It remains to be seen if the case will be resolved short of another trial. The decision to overturn this conviction was made by a panel of five Supreme Court Appellate Division Justices, three of whom said that there was an error and the case should return to pre-trial status and two of whom said that there was an error but a harmless one, and the convictions should be upheld.
Because there were two dissenting judges, the Livingston County District Attorney’s Office now has the right to appeal the case to a yet higher court to either have this decision reinforced and prepare for another trial, have this decision overturned and the convictions upheld, or have all of the charges dismissed and the whole case disposed of.
The issue that resulted in the overturned convictions is a fine but significant one. At trial in 2014, the DA’s Office tried to prove that Buza lived at a residence where police found approximately six pounds of marijuana and a quantity of psychoactive mushrooms. To do this, the DA’s Office introduced as evidence both a document by which Buza consented to a search of the residence and an admission that Buza allegedly made to police. All of the Appellate Judges on the panel, including the two who thought that the conviction should still stand, agreed that the DA’s Office (the People) did not give proper notice that they intended to use the admission at trial.
Magill says that he objected at trial for this reason. Judge Wiggins, in a written decision following the trial, overruled Magill’s objection. Judge Wiggins found that the testimony relating to Buza’s admission was admissible evidence citing the ‘pedigree exception,’ by which the prosecution can introduce as evidence and without notice statements made by a defendant in response to police questioning, for example, routine booking questions at a police station. However, Magill argued to the appellate court that Judge Wiggins only applied this exception because he ‘implicitly recognized’ that ‘without the unnoticed admissions, the People’s case was in peril.’
“Curiously,” said Magill, “prior to the trial court’s use of the pedigree exception in its written decision, no argument had been made by the People at trial that the evidence constituted pedigree information and this was a theory advance only by County Court in his decision.”
Continue to follow the GeneseeSun.com as this case makes its way through the court system once more.