New York Criminal Procedure Law § 180.50
The primary method is through New York Criminal Procedure Law § 180.50. This section of the Criminal Procedure Law is complex in its process, but, in essence, it permits a judge to consider whether the charge against a defendant should be reduced to a misdemeanor.
According to CPL § 180.50, the local criminal court is permitted, with the consent of the district attorney, to “make inquiry” to determine whether the facts and evidence relating to the conduct that formed the basis of the felony complaint provide a basis for charging the defendant with an offense other than a felony. To make its decision, the court looks at the criminal complaint or information filed against the defendant and may question anyone with relevant information about the offense, including the defendant, if the defendant consents.
If the facts and circumstances warrant charging the defendant with a misdemeanor, the court then decides whether the charge should be reduced to that misdemeanor. The court is not required to reduce the charge even if it finds that the facts and evidence support the charge of a misdemeanor; the rule merely provides the court with the option to do so.
If the court finds that there is “reasonable cause” to believe that the defendant committed a misdemeanor, it must then determine whether the defendant committed a felony in addition to the misdemeanor. If the court finds that no reasonable cause exists to believe that the defendant committed a felony in addition to the misdemeanor, the court may “as of right” order the charge to be reduced to a misdemeanor. If the court finds that reasonable cause exists to believe that the defendant committed a felony in addition to the misdemeanor, it may reduce the first felony charge to a misdemeanor only if it determines that such a reduction is in the interest of justice and only if the district attorney agrees to the reduction.
Once the court determines that the original felony charge should be reduced to a misdemeanor, it must then go through the process of converting the felony charge to a misdemeanor charge. The first step is to determine whether the evidence against the defendant is “legally sufficient” to support the misdemeanor charge. If it is, the court takes one of several paths to convert the charge.
First, the court may order that the felony charge is replaced by a district attorney’s information or complaint charging the misdemeanor. Second, the court may request that the complaining party’s information charging the felony be replaced by an information charging the misdemeanor. Third, the court may indicate on the original felony complaint or information itself or by an attachment to it that the felony charge is reduced to a charge for a misdemeanor, changing the title of the information or complaint and the name of the offense charged.
If the evidence against the defendant provides only “reasonable cause” to believe that a misdemeanor was committed but is not “legally sufficient” to support the charge, the court does not order the district attorney to file a new information or complaint charging the misdemeanor, but it may request that the complainant’s information be replaced by an information charging the misdemeanor or it may change the complaint or information on its own by marking the original complaint or attaching a document to the complaint indicating the reduction of the charge.
Once a misdemeanor complaint or information is filed against the defendant, the court dismisses the felony complaint and arraigns the defendant on the new accusatory instrument; that is, the complaint or information charging the defendant with a misdemeanor.
Of critical importance to the conversion of a felony charge to a misdemeanor charge under CPL § 180.50 is the consent of the district attorney to allow the court to “make inquiry” into whether the charge should be reduced. Without that consent, the court has no discretion to convert the felony charge to a misdemeanor. The decision regarding which charge should proceed is determined by the district attorney.
The facts and circumstances underlying the felony charge play an important role in reducing that charge to a misdemeanor. The court makes a careful examination of those facts and circumstances to determine whether reasonable cause exists to conclude that the defendant committed a misdemeanor. Once the court determines that such reasonable cause exists, it proceeds under CPL § 180.50 to make the reduction.
Another way to get a felony charge reduced to a misdemeanor is through a plea agreement between the prosecutor and the defendant. Ordinarily, the prosecutor offers to reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor in exchange for the defendant’s agreement to plead guilty to the misdemeanor. For the defendant, this process is clearly not as desirable as having the court convert the felony charge to a misdemeanor under CPL § 180.50 since the plea agreement requires the defendant to plead guilty to the lesser charge while CPL § 180.50 only replaces the felony charge with the misdemeanor charge. The defendant may still plead not guilty to the misdemeanor and require the prosecutor to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the misdemeanor charged in the complaint. However, if the court does not convert the felony charge on its own, a plea agreement may be the next best way to have the charge reduced to a felony.
Reducing a felony charge to a misdemeanor charge is complex. Because of the significant differences in being convicted of a felony versus a misdemeanor, a defendant should get representation from an experienced attorney to oversee the process.