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Defendant Must Know Weight of Drugs to Be Convicted on Criminal Sale Charges, New York Court of Appeals Rules


April 1995

The New York Court of Appeals ruled on Feb. 16 that the prosecution, in order to obtain a conviction of a defendant on criminal sale charges, must show that the defendant knew the weight of the drugs in question (People (New York) v. Hill, No. 34, 1995WL64297 (NY Ct.App. 1995); 56 CrL 1486; Gary Spencer, "School Funding Heads Appeals Court Agenda," New York Law Journal, Jan. 3, 1995, p. 1).

On Sept. 26, 1988, an undercover detective bought what was later estimated to be one-half ounce of heroin from Andre Colon and Nathaniel Hill at a repair shop. Colon dropped the packages of drugs on the floor and the detective stooped to pick them up. At the same time, the detective handed money to Hill, who counted it and then handed it to Colon.

The defense argued that Hill's conviction was a violation of his due process right because he did not know and did not have reason to know the weight of the drugs involved in the transaction.

The court relied on their earlier ruling in People v. Ryan (82 NY2d 497, 626 N.E.2d 51 (NY Ct.App. 1993); 54 CrL 1314), in which it found that a defendant, in order to be convicted of criminal possession in the second-degree, must be aware of the possession of the drugs and must be knowledgeable of the weight of the drugs. The court ruled in Hill that the same standard should apply to defendants in criminal sale of a controlled substance cases.

The prosecution argued that Ryan should not be applied in this case since the Hill decision was made before the Ryan ruling. The court ruled that Ryan was not a rule or a new legal ruling but an interpretation of the existing statute, and thus could be applied retroactively to the current case.

Penal Law §220.41 (1) states that "a person is guilty of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the second degree when he knowingly and unlawfully sells ... one or more preparations, compounds, mixtures, or substances of an aggregate weight of one-half ounce or more containing a narcotic drug." The court said in Ryan that the term "knowingly" applies to both knowledge of the possession and knowledge of the weight of the controlled substance.

The court ordered a new trial for Hill at which the prosecution must show that the defendant had knowledge of the weight of the drugs.