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Defendant has the right to fire a privately retained attorney and ask for a court appointed attorney

In this appeal Jimenez-Antunez appealed the district court’s denial of his motion to fire his retained counsel and his request for court appointed counsel. Jimenez was a drug dealer with connections to a Mexican supplier who had couriers deliver drugs to Jimenez and then directed Jimenez to deposit drug sales into various bank accounts. Jimenez was arrested and charged with conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine and conspiracy to commit money laundering. A private attorney filed a notice of appearance as his counsel and he worked out a plea agreement with the government to plead guilty to the two conspiracy charges. Three months before sentencing hearing Jimenez sent his attorney a letter asking him to withdraw from the case and telling him he wanted the judge to appoint another lawyer. The attorney then moves to withdraw as the defense attorney. Prior to sentencing the judge held a hearing on the motion to withdraw and heard that that the client felt the attorney had coerced him into pleading guilty, that the attorney did not let him speak or explain certain matters, that the attorney threatened him by telling him he would be sentenced to 30 years if he did not plead guilty. He also said the attorney did not visit him in six months. The district court refused Jimenez’s request for new counsel concluding that Jimenez had been afforded effective counsel. It found no evidence that the attorney actually coerced Jimenez to plead guilty nor did credit Jimenez’s claim that the attorney had not visited him in six months. The district court believed that Jimenez’s real gripe was his disappointment with the sentencing guideline range in the presentence investigation report.

The appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision and remanded the case after concluding that the defendant in a criminal case need not have to show good cause to dismiss his counsel.  The court noted that an indigent defendant who requests counsel does not have the right to have a particular lawyer represent him.  Furthermore, a defendant with a court appointed lawyer have the right to a different court appointed lawyer except for good cause.  Good cause exists where there is a fundamental problem such as a conflict of interest a complete breakdown in communication or an irreconcilable conflict that leads to an unjust verdict.

The appellate court concluded that a defendant charged with a federal crime can replace a privately retained criminal defense attorney with a court appointed attorney without having to show good cause, because a defendant’s the right to choose counsel includes the right to discharge counsel that one no longer chooses.  If a defendant wants to remove retained counsel and request a court appointed counsel, the trial court must determine first if the defendant is financially eligible for appointed counsel.  Here the district court erred in denying the request to discharge his counsel based on its assessment of the attorney’s performance.  And the court failed to show that replacing the attorney would interfere with the fair, orderly, and effective administration of the court.

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