State v. A.N.J: WA Supremes Withdraw Guilty Plea Due To Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Issue was whether defendant A.N.J’s court appointed counsel was ineffective because counsel failed to do an adequate investigation, failed to consult with experts, failed to fully inform him of the consequences of his plea, and failed to form a confidential relationship with him independent of his parents.

http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/?fa=opinions.disp&filename=812365MAJ

In 2004, when A.N.J. was 12 years old, he pleaded guilty to first degree child molestation.  Almost immediately, he moved to withdraw his plea upon realizing (1) his juvenile sex offense criminal history would remain on his record once he was an adult, (2) that he might have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life, (3) that he would have to notify his school, and (4) that he would probably be shadowed by an adult while he was at the school.  He argued that under the facts of this case, his plea was not knowing, voluntary and intelligent, and that he should have been allowed to withdraw it.

The court record showed that A.N.J.’s defense counsel spent as little as 55 minutes with A.N.J. before the plea hearing, did no independent investigation, did not carefully review the plea agreement, and consulted with no experts.

Consequently, the WA Supremes reasoned that court appointed counsel’s representation fell below the objective standard guaranteed by the constitution.  A.N.J. was also misled into believing his criminal record of the sex offense could be expunged in the future. Also,  considering the contractual constraints under which Anderson was working, the limited time he spent with his client before the plea, the fact he spent just a few minutes with A.N.J. to go over the statement on plea, A.N.J.’s prompt motion to withdraw his plea upon discovering the consequences of the plea, and defense counsel’s declaration that there was some “confusion” about when the charge could be removed and that Anderson “believed” the conviction could be removed from A.N.J.’s record when he turned 18 or 21, the court concluded that A.N.J.  has established that he was misinformed as to the consequences of his plea.

My opinion?  Justice Chamber’s introduction in this opinion says it all: “While the vast majority of public defenders do sterling and impressive work, in some times and places, inadequate funding and troublesome limits on indigent counsel have made the promise of effective assistance of counsel more myth than fact, more illusion than substance. Public funds for appointed counsel are sometimes woefully inadequate, and public contracts have imposed statistically impossible case loads on public defenders and require that the costs of experts, investigators, and conflict counsel must come out of the defenders’ own already inadequate compensation.”  State v. A.N.J. at 3.

Public defenders have tough jobs.  Period.  Many of my colleagues are public defenders.  Trust me, they’re on the battlefield every day; in the trenches, trying cases to the best of their abilities.  Unfortunately, glutted trial calendars and lack of resources stretch time/energy/resources excruciatingly thin.

I only hope this opinion gives all criminal defense attorneys, and not only public defenders, some insights into how to avoid inneffective assistance of counsel.