CPL 160.50 (1) (D) (Ii) Interpretation

In Matter of Katherine B. v. Cataldo (5 NY3d 196, 833 NE2d 698, 800 NYS2d 363 [2005]), the Court of Appeals held that CPL 160.50 (1) (d) (ii) does not authorize the unsealing of Criminal Court records for the purpose of assisting prosecutors in making sentencing recommendations in pending Criminal Court prosecutions. The petitioners in Katherine B. were political demonstrators who had chained themselves together across a busy midtown intersection, thereby impeding vehicular traffic. The petitioners were convicted in Criminal Court of obstructing governmental administration and disorderly conduct. Prior to imposing sentence, the trial judge asked the prosecutor to furnish him with the petitioners' updated criminal histories in support of their sentencing recommendations. Because a number of the petitioners' prior cases had been sealed, the prosecutor sought and obtained an ex parte unsealing order from the Honorable John Cataldo in Supreme Court, Criminal Term, pursuant to CPL 160.50 (1) (d) (ii). Upon learning of the unsealing order, the petitioners moved before Judge Cataldo for an order vacating the unsealing order. Judge Cataldo denied the application. The Court of Appeals reversed the Supreme Court, finding the unsealing order was not properly granted within the parameters set forth in CPL 160.50 (1) (d) (ii). (Matter of Katherine B. v. Cataldo, 5 NY3d 196, 833 NE2d 698, 800 NYS2d 363 [2005], supra.) The Court noted that the six statutory exceptions expressly set forth within paragraph (d) were "precisely drawn." (Id. at 203.) These narrowly drawn exceptions evidenced the "Legislature's commitment to prohibiting disclosure of sealed records--once initial sealing has not been forestalled by the court in the interests of justice--except where the statute explicitly provides otherwise." (Id. at 203.) The Court in Katherine B. concluded that: "The statute's provisions strongly suggest that its primary focus is the unsealing of records for investigatory purposes." (Id. at 205.) The Court further indicated that the law enforcement exception under CPL 160.50 (1) (d) (ii) applied to police departments, the Division of Criminal Justice Services and other law enforcement agencies. The Court pointed out that the term "law enforcement agency," when used elsewhere in CPL 160.50, always appears in conjunction with the terms "police department" and/or the "division of criminal justices services." (Id. at 204.) In comparing CPL 160.50 (1) (d) (i), which expressly authorizes prosecutors to seek an unsealing order when a defendant moves for an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal on a marijuana charge, with CPL 160.50 (1) (d) (ii), the Court concluded that: "The Legislature has limited a court's authority to make sealed records available to a prosecutor after commencement of a criminal proceeding to the singular circumstance delineated in CPL 160.50 (1) (d) (i)--where the accused has moved for an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal in a case involving marijuana charges below felony grade, a benefit that an accused may obtain only once." (Id. at 205.)