Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Expansion of New York State Post-Conviction Relief: People V. Seeber and the Extension of CPL 440.10(1)(b) beyond Brady

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

The Expansion of New York State Post-Conviction Relief: People V. Seeber and the Extension of CPL 440.10(1)(b) beyond Brady

Article excerpt


The Third Department's decision in People v. Seeber (1) is a seminal opinion on the purpose, meaning, and scope of CPL 440.10(1)(b). (2) That provision provides for post-conviction relief where "[t]he judgment was procured by duress, misrepresentation or fraud on the part of the court or a prosecutor or a person acting for or in behalf of a court or a prosecutor." (3) Prior to Seeber, criminal defendants rarely prevailed under this subsection, and section 440.10(1)(b) arguments were frequently paired with claims of constitutional error under subsection (h)--specifically violations of Brady v. Maryland (4) and its progeny. In rejecting the defendants' constitutional contentions, the section 440.10(1)(b) argument was similarly dismissed, often without discussion. (5) Seeber is unique in the Third Department's explicit rejection of the defendant's Brady claim, while granting relief on the basis of subsection (b) and expounding on its application and significance. (6)


In 1970, section 440.10 of the New York Criminal Procedure Law was enacted in an overhaul of the state's then-Code of Criminal Procedure, which dated back to 1881.7 The reform simplified motion practice through an "omnibus motion technique" to replace a system in which "many grounds or contentions ... must be separately raised by different types of motions." (8) Section 440.10(1)(b) has not been amended since its adoption. (9)

Section 440.10(1)(b) of the New York Criminal Procedure Law is a partial codification of the writ of error coram nobis, (10) an ancient English common law doctrine that the New York Court of Appeals rejuvenated in 1943 in Matter of Lyons v. Goldstein. (11) The case concerned a defendant who pleaded guilty to burglary in the third degree. (12) Approximately four years after entry of judgment on his plea, the defendant applied to the court of conviction "to open the judgment of conviction, to withdraw his plea of guilty and to enter a plea of not guilty ... on the ground that his original plea of guilty had been induced by fraud and misrepresentation on the part of a prosecuting official." (13) The defendant claimed that "he would not have pleaded guilty in 1936 had he not been 'promised executive clemency' by an Assistant District Attorney." (14) The state sought an order of prohibition from the Special Term of the New York Supreme Court to enjoin the court of conviction from exercising jurisdiction, which the special term granted and the appellate division upheld. (15) The New York Court of Appeals took the appeal to decide whether a court of conviction could "reopen a judgment of conviction which is based upon fraud and misrepresentation after the judgment has been entered and sentence has been imposed." (16)

In reversing, the court held that denial of post-conviction relief for judgments of conviction obtained by fraud or misrepresentation "would be repugnant to the due process clauses of the Constitutions of the United States and of the State of New York" and that "[t]he inherent power of a court to set aside its judgment which was procured by fraud and misrepresentation cannot be doubted" as it arises from the common law writ of error coram nobis, (17) In addition, the court rejected the argument that executive clemency is a sufficient remedy for criminal defendants seeking post-conviction relief, noting that "[a] pardon proceeds not upon the theory of innocence, but implies guilt." (18) Thus, the Goldstein court importantly affirmed that the trial court possesses inherent authority to grant relief from convictions obtained through fraud or other improper conduct by the court or prosecutor. (19)

The case sparked a judge-led expansion of post-conviction relief in New York State, which tracked changes in federal procedural due process rights arising from the seminal decisions of the Warren Court. (20) Scholars expounded on coram nobis's possible impact, noting that since its revival in 1943, "a myriad of applications containing many different allegations of fact have been presented to the trial courts" under the writ. …

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