The New York Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of a criminal defendant on the ground that the trial court improperly limited defense counsel to five minutes of questioning for each round of voir dire. Although the governing criminal procedure statute grants New York trial courts broad discretion to limit the scope of voir dire, the Court held that the courts’ discretion is not unlimited and that fixed time constraints on voir dire can in certain circumstances constitute reversible error.
The Court of Appeals did not establish any baseline requirement for the length of voir dire, reasoning that the appropriate allotment will vary with the circumstances. Acknowledging that New Yorka appellate courts had previously upheld time limits of ten and fifteen minutes, the Court ruled that five minutes was unreasonable in light of the facts and complexity of the case. In this regard, the Court emphasized that the defendant had been charged with four serious violent felonies and that the limited questioning revealed several areas of potential bias that defense counsel was unable to effectively probe. In particular, the victim was a popular DJ in the New York area and several potential jurors were aware of his celebrity. In addition, a number of potential jurors were themselves crime victims and the case involved sensitive issues of self-help, as the victim had pursued and constrained the defendant with considerable force prior to his apprehension by police. The Court ruled that the five-minute limitation on voir dire resulted in prejudice because it appeared, based on the uncontroverted contention of defense counsel, that a number of problematic jurors ultimately sat on the jury.
Two dissenting judges concluded that the defendant had not preserved a challenge to the voir dire time limit because counsel lodged only a generic objection in the trial court and failed to articulate why additional time was needed. The case is People v. Steward, 950 N.E.2d 480 (N.Y. 2011).