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People v. Roberts - 2018 NY Slip Op 03172, 31 N.Y.3d 406, 79 N.Y.S.3d 597, 104 N.E.3d 701

Rule:

A reviewing court's task—as it is in every case involving statutory interpretation—is to ascertain the legislative intent and construe the pertinent statutes to effectuate that intent. As the clearest indicator of legislative intent is the statutory text, the starting point in any case of interpretation must always be the language itself, giving effect to the plain meaning thereof. If the words chosen have a definite meaning, which involves no absurdity or contradiction, then there is no room for construction and courts have no right to add or take away from that meaning. The Legislature has instructed courts that in interpreting the Penal Law, the provisions must be read according to the fair import of their terms to promote justice and effect the objects of the law. As with other statutory provisions, those contained in the Penal Law are generally to be construed so as to give effect to their most natural and obvious meaning. This is particularly important where the definition of a crime is at issue, because courts must be scrupulous in insuring that penal responsibility is not extended beyond the fair scope of the statutory mandate. Nevertheless, in construing a statute courts should consider the mischief sought to be remedied by the new legislation, and they should construe the act in question so as to suppress the evil and advance the remedy. 

Facts:

Defendant Kerri Roberts entered a sporting goods store in New York City and attempted to purchase over $1,000 worth of merchandise with an American Express credit card imprinted with the name "Craig E. Jonathan." Along with the card, Roberts presented the cashier with a New Jersey driver's license with a name matching the credit card, but featuring Roberts' actual photograph. When the store's machine was unable to read the credit card, Roberts insisted that the cashier enter the card number manually, even after the manager told Roberts he knew the card was fraudulent and that he would call the police if Roberts did not leave. Roberts persisted but never succeeded in purchasing the goods. After Roberts' arrest just outside the store, the police searched his wallet and found a New York State identification card bearing his photograph and the name "Kerri Roberts." Roberts with charged with two counts of criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree and identity theft in the second degree. At trial in New York state court, Roberts filed a motion to dismiss the identity theft count, arguing that he was pretending to be Craig E. Jonathan and not the actual credit card account holder. The court denied the motion and the jury convicted Roberts as charged. On appeal, the appellate division modified the trial court's order to the extent of vacating the identity theft conviction and dismissing that count of the indictment, but otherwise affirmed. The People were granted leave to appeal.

In a separate case, defendant Terrie J. Rush was convicted for her part in a criminal scheme in which she deposited stolen and forged checks in a bank account opened under the name of an innocent third party, from which the funds were later withdrawn. As established at Rush's trial, an accomplice set up a bank account in the name of an area resident, without that resident's knowledge or permission. Around the same time, a local business discovered that several company checks had been stolen and that three had been made payable to the victim and deposited. The company notified the police, who eventually discovered that over the course of three days, Rush had deposited the stolen checks into the account opened in the victim's name and made ATM withdrawals totaling over $1,000 at different bank branches. The victim's signature was forged on the back of each check, and the deposit slips listed his name and the number of the unauthorized bank account. Rush was charged with and convicted of identity theft in the first degree and criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree. The appellate division affirmed the conviction, and Rush was granted leave to appeal.

In consolidated appeals, defendants argued that the evidence of identity theft was legally insufficient in their respective cases because the People failed to show that by defendants' acts, they each in fact separately assumed the identity of another person within the meaning of the statute. They further argued that the use of personal identifying information did not automatically establish that a defendant assumed another's identity, and thus the People had the burden of establishing independently both a defendant's use of protected information and assumptive conduct. 

Issue:

Can the prosecution establish that a defendant "assumes the identity of another," within the meaning of New York's identity theft statute, by proof that the defendant used another's personal identifying information, such as that person's name, bank account, or credit card number?

Answer:

Yes.

Conclusion:

The Court of Appeals of New York held that defendants could not show that the People had the burden of establishing independently both a defendant's use of protected information and assumptive conduct because the law defined the use of personal identifying information of another as one of the express means by which a defendant assumed that person's identity. It rejected defendants' decontextualized interpretation of the statutory language and concluded that the law defined the use of personal identifying information of another as one of the express means by which a defendant assumes that person's identity. Thus, the court reversed the appellate division's order as to Roberts and the case was remitted to that court for consideration of the facts. The court affirmed the appellate division's order as to Rush.

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