LIVINGSTON COUNTY – Joseph Harris will soon return to the Livingston County courthouse to play out the latest twist in his two-year fight through the court system following the successful appeal of a guilty plea which was accepted in Livingston County Court.
Oddly enough, it was something that Harris, 47, said in court back in February 2014 that undermined the admissibility of his own guilty plea to felony Attempted Promoting Prison Contraband in the First Degree in the eyes of the Fourth Department of the Supreme Court of the State of New York. Judge Dennis Cohen accepted a guilty plea for the charge, but Harris said on the record at the time of the plea that he didn’t do it.
“As he was pleading to an attempt, no colloquy was necessary, but the Fourth Department found that statements [Harris] made on the record cast doubt on his knowledge and intent to possess contraband,” said Livingston County Assistant District Attorney Joshua Tonra, who is handling the case. “We were hoping for a different outcome, but there is still viable prosecution against him. The contraband plea had been appealed, but the Criminal Possession of a Weapon was upheld.”
Harris has already served a two-year sentence for the crime, but will soon return to Judge Cohen’s courtroom to be heard on the appealed contraband charge.
The DA’s office now has the option to vacate the entire plea, including the upheld guilty plea to Attempted Criminal Possession of a Weapon, restore all 8 counts of the original indictment, and recommend a new sentence for Harris.
“The agreement in place was to plead guilty to both the weapon and the contraband charges,” said Tonra. “The Fourth Department has given us the option to vacate the plea in its entirety, but we’re still making our decision.”
New York State Supreme Court Justice Henry J. Scudder, Justice Nancy E. Smith, Justice John Centra, Justice Erin M. Peradotto, and Justice Edward D. Carni said in their decision that Judge Cohen should have asked Harris follow-up questions to make sure that he voluntarily possessed the contraband before accepting his guilty plea.
“[…] we conclude that, to the extent he pleaded guilty to attempted criminal possession of a weapon, that part of his plea does not fall within the narrow exception to the preservation requirement such that County Court had a duty to inquire further into the voluntariness of the plea with respect to that crime” says the appeal decision, obtained by our news partner 13WHAM. “Thus, defendant’s denials created “that rare case . . . where the defendant’s recitation of the facts underlying the crime pleaded to clearly casts significant doubt upon the defendant’s guilt or otherwise calls into question the voluntariness of the plea[. Consequently,] the trial court [had] a duty to inquire further to ensure that defendant’s guilty plea [was] knowing and voluntary […]”