In State v. Hampton, the WA Supreme Court decided It was not an abuse of discretion for a trial judge to deny a defendant’s request to delay trial to allow him to replace his public defender with a private attorney.
Mr. Hampton was charged with Rape in the Second Degree. On the eve of his trial, Hampton moved to replace his appointed counsel with a new private attorney on the condition that the trial be continued so his new counsel could prepare. The trial court denied the continuance, so Hampton proceeded with his previously appointed counsel. He was ultimately convicted of Rape in the Third Degree.
The Court of Appeals reversed his conviction, holding that the trial court’s decision violated Hampton’s constitutional right to his choice of counsel because it considered Hampton’s reasons for wanting a new attorney. The Court of Appeals relied on United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, a United States Supreme Court opinion that held that when a defendant’s right to choice of counsel is erroneously denied, a defendant need not show prejudice in order to obtain relief.
Here, the WA Supreme Court overruled the WA Court of Appeals and upheld Mr. Hampton’s conviction. It reasoned that a trial court has wide latitude to grant or deny a motion to delay trial related to a defendant’s request to change counsel. In making such a decision, trial courts should consider the factual context for the motion, which can include among other factors-a defendant’s reasons for dissatisfaction with existing counsel.
In this case, reasoned the court, the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Hampton’s request to delay trial to allow him to replace his counsel given that (1) he did not make his request until the day his trial was scheduled to start, (2) his trial had already been continued once, (3) the victim/witness opposed the continuance, and (4) he did not explain his dissatisfaction with appointed counsel.
The WA Supreme Court also stated that trial courts can consider all relevant information, including the 11 factors described in the most recent edition of the LaFave Criminal Procedure treatise:
(1) whether the request came at a point sufficiently in advance of trial to permit the trial court to readily adjust its calendar;
(2) the length of the continuance requested;
(3) whether the continuance would carry the trial date beyond the period specified in the state speedy trial act;
(4) whether the court had granted previous continuances at the defendant’s request;
( 5) whether the continuance would seriously inconvenience the witnesses;
(6) whether the continuance request was made promptly after the defendant first became aware of the grounds advanced for discharging his or her counsel;
(7) whether the defendant’s own negligence placed him or her in a situation where he or she needed a continuance to obtain new counsel;
(8) whether the defendant had some legitimate cause for dissatisfaction with counsel, even though it fell short of likely incompetent representation;
(9) whether there was a “rational basis” for believing that the defendant was seeking to change counsel “primarily for the purpose of delay”;
(10) whether the current counsel was prepared to go to trial; and
( 11) whether denial of the motion was likely to result in identifiable prejudice to the defendant’s case of a material or substantial nature.
Based on that, and under the circumstances, the WA Supreme Court concluded that the trial court in this case did not error by considering the defendant’s reasons for dissatisfaction with his appointed attorney in addition to the other circumstances, such as the lateness of the request, the previous continuance granted by the court, and the victim/witness’s opposition to further delay.
Consequently, the WA Supremes reversed the Court of Appeals and held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion when it considered – among other factors – the defendant’s reasons for his dissatisfaction with his appointed counsel.
My opinion? Trial judges are very, very suspicious and pessimistic when defendants try withdrawing/replacing their defense attorney at the 11th hour before trial. Judges know that Prosecutors work hard – and they do – to bring witnesses together and prepare for trial. Judges also know want to avoid any witness tampering and/or intimidation on the part of defendants who may have mistakenly believed they could strike a BBD (bigger, better deal) right before trial. That line of thinking on the part of defendants is not always true, in fact, it’s rarely true. Believe me, once a competent Prosecutor prepares a trial, they’re rarely convinced of going anywhere but forward with their prosecution.