The Third Department, reversing defendant’s conviction and ordering a new trial, determined a jail phone call in which defendant said he might plead guilty was inadmissible. In addition the prosecutor’s comment on summation that defendant said (in that jail phone call) he needed a “paid lawyer” was an improper reference to defendant’s right to counsel:
[Defendant] was deprived of a fair trial based upon the admission of a jail phone call wherein he stated that he might as well “cop out to . . . the five years or whatever.” The People portrayed this evidence as relevant to show defendant’s consciousness of guilt. Even if relevant, evidence of consciousness of guilt is generally considered weak … . That said, defendant’s statement that he contemplated taking a plea had little probative value but had a prejudicial effect on him. In this regard, “[s]ince it is widely assumed that only the guilty would consider entering a guilty plea, the knowledge that defendant wanted to plead guilty would make it difficult for the jury to accept the presumption of innocence and to evaluate the evidence fairly” … .
We also agree with defendant’s argument that he was prejudiced by the prosecutor’s comment on summation that defendant, in the jail phone call, stated that “[h]e need[ed] to get a paid lawyer to see if he can get lesser time.” The prosecutor argued to the jury that this statement went to defendant’s consciousness of guilt. A prosecutor, however, cannot use a defendant’s invocation of his or her constitutional right to counsel against such defendant … . It follows that any commentary to this effect is improper. Accordingly, defendant was prejudiced by the prosecutor’s summation … . People v Roberts, 2022 NY Slip Op 02157, Third Dept 3-31-22
Practice Point: Defendant, in a jail phone call, said he might plead guilty and he needed a “paid lawyer.” The “might plead guilty” statement should not have been admitted because it was highly prejudicial but had little probative value. The prosecutor’s reference in summation to the “need a paid lawyer” statement improperly used defendant’s right to counsel against him. These were deemed reversible errors.