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PL 155.25: What is the Bare Minimum Required for a Legally Sufficient Complaint in New York Criminal Court

Many complaints and accusatory instruments alleging violations of New York Penal Law 155.25 and New York Penal Law 165.40 are “bare bones” and boilerplate. That is, the language is somewhat “plug and play” and generic whereby the item stolen and the value of the property may be changed without substantively altering the paperwork filed in court at your arraignment. Some arrests for Petit Larceny and Fifth Degree Criminal Possession of Stolen Property are processed through a Desk Appearance Ticket (remember, at DAT only shows one charge, but when you appear in court there will likely be more) while others leave you waiting in central booking to see a judge. It is of little relevance where you end up or how you are prosecuted other than one means is more accommodating than the other. Why is it of no consequences? Because irrespective of whether you are charged with shoplifting, theft from an employer, stealing from someone’s home or any other larceny conduct no greater than $1,000, the crime or crimes of PL 155.25 and PL 165.40 remain the same. Moreover, from a legal position, the District Attorney’s Office still has the burden of providing an accused with sufficient notice of the crime or crimes he or she faces and a legally sufficient accusatory instrument so you can prepare a defense to your arrest.

A recent decision by an appellate court addressed the crime of Petit Larceny where a defendant pleaded guilty to PL 155.25 and later challenged the legal sufficiency of the charges. Regardless of the means by which you are arrested for or accused of PL 155.25 and whether it occurred in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens or anywhere in New York City or beyond, is not important. The following case is valuable one because it demonstrates the fairly low threshold the prosecution must achieve to move a case forward from arrest to potential trial. When reading this blog and brief entry, keep in mind that legal sufficiency is not the same as and significantly less than the standard required at trial to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

In People v. Wilkerson, 2016 NY Slip Op 50805 (1st Dept. 2016), the defendant was accused of stealing money from Pathmark. More specifically, the accusatory instrument stated that a police officer observed the defendant at the cash register where she worked. The officer then saw the defendant remove money from the register and place the money she took from the register in the pocket of her smock. Unrelated to the incident, a representative of Pathmark also stated that the defendant did not have permission or authority to act as she was alleged to have done in the complaint. In seeking the dismissal of the complaint, the defendant addressed two issues. In no particular order, the defendant asserted that she had a “good faith claim of right” to the monies allegedly stolen. While this may be true, this defense is available at trial and not one that would be the grounds for dismissal where the issue before the court is merely that of legal sufficiency. In other words, the defendant may ultimately be exonerated, but that defense is a trial issue. More on point, the second issue identified by the defendant in her appeal was whether there was enough notice enabling the defendant to build a defense because other than the claim that monies were removed and placed in a smock, the complaint was devoid of additional information. Thinking out loud, there could be numerous reasons why an employee would take money from a register and place it in his or her smock (again, that is a trial issue not a challenge for legal sufficiency). So how then, can the case proceed? In response, the Court, citing People v. Kasse, 22 N.Y.3d 1142, 1143 (2014), found that even without additional information or evidence, what the prosecution provided was “adequate notice to enable [the] defendant to prepare a defense and invoke [her] protection against double jeopardy.” Clearly, the bar is fairly low.

As alarming as this decision may be, it is critical to acknowledge that legal sufficiency and notice is no way equates to guilt or prevents an accused from setting forth certain factual and legal defenses at trial. While it is upsetting if one should have such a defense, the hurdle at the beginning of the criminal process is quite low for the prosecution. Where you have a viable defense and there is no legal ground to secure a dismissal of a criminal court complaint, you and your attorney or criminal lawyer will still have the opportunity to present your defense whether at trial or in another forum.

To read more about the crimes of Petit Larceny and Criminal Possession of Stolen Property, as well as the felony crimes including Grand Larceny, the links contained in this entry and the websites and blog listed below have further information.

Saland Law PC is a New York criminal defense law firm dedicated to defending the accused in New York’s State and Federal courts. The two founding criminal defense attorneys both served as prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office prior to establishing the law practice.


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