Ruling: Different judge needs to hear DWAI appeal case

'Due process must still safeguard the appearance of impartiality'
Judge Matthew Sypniewski (right) in 2014.
Judge Matthew Sypniewski (right) in 2014.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

ALBANY — The appeal of a Schenectady-based drunken driving conviction cannot be decided by the same judge who presided over the trial, according to a Tuesday ruling by the state’s highest court.

The Court of Appeals decision means the driving while ability impaired conviction of Guilderland resident Brian Novak stands, but the initial appeal of that conviction will now be heard by a different judge.

The case centers on the unusual circumstance in which the judge who presided over Novak’s conviction, Schenectady City Court Judge Matthew Sypniewski, won an election to a County Court post after the conviction, and then got to preside over Novak’s appeal. The high court heard arguments in the case last month.

Sypniewski issued a ruling on Novak’s appeal, upholding the conviction, but Novak appealed again. He argued it was unfair to have the same judge preside over both conviction and appeal.

“Although there was no evidence of partiality here,” the Court of Appeals ruled, “due process must still safeguard the appearance of impartiality to promote public confidence in the courts.”

Novak was represented in his appeal by attorney Danielle Neroni Reilly. Tracey Brunecz argued for the Schenectady County District Attorney’s Office.

The high court found that while “no explicit statutory or constitutional provision” prohibits judges from reviewing their own judgments on appeal, “our laws and court rules have long sought to purge actual bias and the possibility of bias from our courtrooms.”

The court also made clear that hearings, trials and post-verdict motions can still be heard by the same judge, as further appellate review on each remains available.

“However, where there is no opportunity for independent scrutiny by a new decision-maker, the appellate process is compromised, and due process has been violated,” the court wrote.

The high court did not address specifics of the conviction appeal and left those for a different judge to decide.

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