This is an interesting case that arose in the early days of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
In State v. Anderson, the WA Court of Appeals held that courts must try to ensure that criminal defendants are able to confidentially communicate with counsel throughout court proceedings. Failure to provide a confidential means to communicate may be grounds for reversal on appeal.
In 2016, a Franklin County jury convicted Mr. Anderson of multiple felonies including murder, assault, and unlawful possession of a firearm. Mr. Anderson received a sentence of 1,126 months’ imprisonment with 36 months’ community custody, and was assessed $75,430.49 in restitution. A portion of the restitution was imposed jointly and severally with two codefendants.
Three specific issues were identified for resentencing: a vague community custody
condition, two scrivener’s errors, and imposition of discretionary legal financial
obligations in light of Mr. Anderson’s indigence.
A re-sentencing hearing was scheduled to address some concerns Mr. Anderson raised. His resentencing took place in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Washington’s governor declared a state of emergency on February 29, 2020. Shortly thereafter, our Supreme Court began issuing a series of emergency orders addressing court operations during the pandemic. On April 29, 2020, the Supreme Court
issued an order that specified as follows:
Courts must allow telephonic or video appearances for all scheduled criminal and juvenile offender hearings whenever possible. For all hearings that involve a critical stage of the proceedings, courts shall provide a means for defendants and respondents to have the opportunity for private and continual discussion with their attorney.
Mr. Anderson attended the May 12 resentencing hearing via video. His attorney appeared telephonically. The hearing was very brief, generating only seven substantive pages of a report of proceeding. During the hearing, there was no discussion regarding whether Mr. Anderson had consented to appear via video.
Nor was there any clarification about whether Mr. Anderson and his attorney were able to communicate throughout the hearing. The parties agreed to modify the judgment and sentence according to the three issues identified in our prior decision. When addressed by the court, Mr. Anderson confirmed he agreed with the modifications.
At the hearing’s close, the court asked Mr. Anderson if he had been able to hear and understand the proceedings. Mr. Anderson responded affirmatively, but also asked how he was supposed to pay the outstanding restitution. The court instructed Mr. Anderson to confer with his attorney. Mr. Anderson subsequently asked the court how long he had to appeal the decision. The court told him that he had 30 days to make a direct appeal, and that he should speak to his attorney regarding the process. The hearing then adjourned.
Mr. Anderson filed a timely notice of appeal. He argues the videoconference resentencing hearing deprived him of his right to be present and to confer with counsel.
COURT’S ANALYSIS & CONCLUSIONS
The Court of Appeals began by saying the right to counsel applies to all critical stages of criminal proceedings, including resentencing.
“The constitutional right to counsel demands more than just access to a warm body with a bar card,” said the Court. “Among other things, it requires individuals charged with crimes to be able to confer privately with their attorneys at all critical stages of the proceedings.” It further reasoned that the ability for attorneys and clients to consult privately need not be seamless, but it must be meaningful. “It is the role of the judge make sure that attorneys and clients have the opportunity to engage in private consultation.”
The Court relied on State v. Gonzalez-Morales, a WA Supreme Court case with similar issues. In Gonzalez-Morales, the defendant’s rights were violated when the trial court failed to give him an interpreter to communicate with his attorney.
“Mr. Anderson argues his case fails to meet the constitutional standard recognized
in Gonzales-Morales,” said the Court of Appeals. “We agree.”
“Unlike what happened in Gonzales-Morales, the trial court here never set any ground rules for how Mr. Anderson and his attorney could confidentially communicate during the hearing. Nor were Mr. Anderson and his attorney physically located in the same room, where they might have been able to at least engage in nonverbal communication.
Given Mr. Anderson participated by video from the jail and his attorney was appearing by telephone from a separate location, it is not apparent how private attorney-client communication could have taken place during the remote hearing. It is unrealistic to expect Mr. Anderson to assume he had permission to interrupt the judge and court proceedings if he wished to speak with his attorney.” ~WA Court of Appeals
Despite the communication obstacles, the Court nevertheless held Mr. Anderson was not entitled to relief because of harmless error. It also said that although Mr. Anderson was not entitled to relief, this case is a cautionary tale for trial judges administering remote criminal proceedings:
“The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the administration of justice in innumerable ways. Videoconferencing has been an essential component of continued court operations. But courts must ensure videoconferencing occurs in a way that allows for private attorney client consultation. The best method is to arrange for attorneys and clients to be located in a shared physical space, with access to additional communication technologies (such as text messaging devices) if necessary to maintain physical distancing.”
My opinion? The COVID-19 Pandemic has certainly increased the difficulty of practicing law. Courtroom proceedings went virtual or were put on hold, causing delays in justice. Law schools and bar exams were upended. The shift was dramatic. We’ve had to learn new technologies and skills. We’ve had to revolve our practice to adhere and comply with new Executive Orders from our courts. And In the face of change and challenge, we do what American lawyers have done since lawyers helped found this country: we choose to get to work to help to solve the problems before us.
Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.