Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Court appointed counsel and their clients are people, too

US v. Smith, a.k.a. Poe: It's a subject matter close to the hearts of court appointed counsel everywhere, the quality of harmony in attorney-client relations. In this appeal, defendant Smith challenged the voluntariness of his plea, to which he had agreed following several attempts to obtain substitute counsel.

The Fourth Circuit waxes sympathetic as it considers the Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel, to deal with Smith's contention that the district court's denial of his substitution of counsel request rendered his guilty plea involuntary (he had been named in a 20-count indictment charging him and 27 others with racketeering and conspiracy to district and possess with intent to distribute drugs). "The mere physical presence of counsel is not enough: it is the marriage of the attorney's legal knowledge and mature judgment with the defendant's factual knowledge that makes for an adequate defense...more than a 'warm body' is required to satisfy the Sixth Amendment." The Fourth Circuit refers to Sixth Circuit's findings in three cases of per se Sixth Amendment violations, and a Ninth Circuit case where the denial of a substitution motion resulted in the constructive denial of counsel. Upon resolving the question of the appropriate standard of review to consider the denial of substitution requests as clear error review, the Fourth Circuit declines to find clear error.

Was Smith's guilty plea rendered involuntary? Was it effectively uncounseled because of a failure to communicate between appointed counsel and client? The parties remained on speaking terms, counsel continued to make visits to his client in prison, and though the two may have argued, the Fourth Circuit found that there was no conclusive break prior to the plea hearing, and Smith's contention that his plea was involuntary failed. Neither did the Fourth Circuit find that the denial of Smith's request for substitute counsel at the time of sentencing cause a clear error.

The Fourth Circuit considered the nature of the communication between counsel and client throughout the representation, and it noted that there had been severe damage by the time of sentencing; yet, since counsel and client had met, reviewed the PSR, and communicated enough to allow counsel to present some concerns to the court, the Fourth Circuit declined to find that counsel failed to render genuinely effective assistance.

And while "there is no one-free-lawyer" rule, the Fourth Circuit found that Smith's one appointed lawyer was sufficient here to protect his Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights.

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