Monday, April 2, 2012

Replacing Counsel

While the decision in State v. Alvarez-Delvalle is neither surprising nor groundbreaking, it contains a helpful reminder of the procedure courts must follow to determine if a defendant is entitled to new counsel. The defendant in Alvarez-Delvalle sought to replace his attorney in the trial court, and on appeal argued that the trial court erred by not in fact replacing counsel. The Utah Court of Appeals was quick to reject this claim, ultimately finding that the defendant did not show good cause to warrant appointment of new counsel.

The court provided a succint summary of the analysis trial courts must undertake when considering requests for new counsel. First, the trial court has a duty to make some "reasonable non-suggestive efforts to determine the nature of a defendant's complaints before deciding whether good cause for substitute counsel exists." Second, the defendant must establish that good cause exists for such a substitution. Good cause, in turn, exists where the defendant can establish a conflict of interest, a complete breakdown in communication, or an irreconciliable conflict. While the court in Alvarez-Delvalle addressed whether the failure to provide new counsel resulted in prejudice to the defendant, it is clear that trial courts must engage in the analysis above when confronted with requests for new counsel. It appears, however, that any failure of a trial court to meaningfully engage in the analysis above is only reversible error if the defendant can establish that the court's decision resulted in prejudice to the defendant.

Again, the decision in Alvarez-Delvalle is hardly novel or unexpected, but the Court of Appeals has nonetheless provided a roadmap for counsel and trial courts to consider in the seemingly more frequent context of requests for new counsel.

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