Monday, February 13, 2017

The Right to Counsel of Choice

   In United States v. Powell, the Sixth Circuit held the district court abused its discretion by allowing one but not both of defendant Earnest Proge's attorneys to withdraw as counsel. Mr. Proge raised his dissatisfaction with counsel during the final pretrial conference. He took issue with what he perceived to be his attorneys' efforts to force him to enter into a plea agreement. Subsequently, counsel briefed its request to withdraw as counsel.

While the district court concluded that Mr. Proge was free to reject his counsel's advice and so there was no breakdown in the attorney-client relationship, the Sixth Circuit held the record supported a different conclusion. Mr. Proge's attorneys told him they had not been retained to represent him at trial, were not prepared or equipped for trial, and would not represent him if he chose to go to trial. Writing for the majority, Judge Guy held, "The conflict between Proge and his attorneys resulted in a complete lack of communication that weighs strongly in his favor."

The Sixth Circuit also noted the need to balance the defendant's right to counsel of choice with the public's interest in the efficient administration of justice. Because the district court put off making an inquiry, despite a specific request for new counsel, it was partly responsible for the short time between the denial of Mr. Proge's request and trial. In holding that Mr. Proge's Sixth Amendment rights were violated, the Sixth Circuit relied on the timely initial request for new counsel, the adequate but delayed inquiry of the district court, and the complete breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.

Judge Moore wrote a separate opinion, concurring in part and dissenting in part, in which she asserted co-defendant Carlos Powell should also have obtained relief from the district court's denial of his Faretta motion seeking self-representation. She also concluded that Mr. Proge's conflict with his counsel, absent any other factors, "should have impelled the district court to grant Proge's request to substitute counsel.

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