Courts Must Review Public Defender Motions to Withdraw for Conflict, Florida Supreme Court Rules

January 11, 2012 by David S. Seltzer

As a Miami-Dade robbery criminal defense lawyer, I was interested to see a recent ruling from here in south Florida about when attorneys may back out of a case because of perceived or actual conflicts of interests. In Johnson v. State, an appellate public defender moved to withdraw from the appeals case of Christopher Johnson because the same public defender was already representing Johnson’s co-defendant, James Mayfield.. The defender’s withdrawal would have required Florida’s Office of Criminal Conduct and Civil Regional Counsel (RCC) to step in, but RCC objected. In this case, the Florida Supreme Court found that RCC has no standing to object to a public defender’s good-faith motion for a conflict withdrawal, but that courts at all levels must review those motions, not just rubber-stamp them.

Johnson and Mayfield had both been convicted in Broward County of robbery with a firearm and carjacking, then appealed the sentence. When the appellate public defender moved to withdraw from Johnson’s defense based on already representing Mayfield, RCC objected. The public defender said RCC had no standing to object, and that there was no need for fact-finding in any case because conflicts are inherent in representing co-defendants. Before the Fourth District Court of Appeal, RCC argued that the defender must show actual conflict, since conflict at the trial level may not translate to the appellate level. The Fourth District ultimately sided with the defender, appointing RCC to represent Johnson. It ruled that the law does not require a fact-finding inquiry into a certified conflict at the appeals level before automatically assigning representation to RCC. It also found that RCC has no standing to challenge a motion to withdraw, since no statute currently authorizes this.

The Florida Supreme Court found that the Fourth District was wrong about conflict cases automatically being assigned to RCC. Though the statute says “regional counsel shall handle the appeal” if a public defender certifies a conflict, it said history and legislative intent have handled it differently. There is no basis in legislative history to assume this, it said, and statutory language governing conflicts outlines a process involving a court inquiry. In fact, it found that this language is not specific to the trial court, and ruled that the appeals court must also review motions to withdraw, as it does other motions. However, the high court sided with the public defender on standing, ruling that RCC has no legal permission to object to such motions. RCC’s duty to represent arises only when a court grants a conflict motion to a public defender, the Supreme Court noted. It is also not a party to the case, which would give it a stronger stake in the outcome. Thus, it agreed that RCC had no standing and no right to be heard in a conflict hearing.

One likely result of this case is that Johnson’s appeal may have been hung up in court for months or longer while the Supreme Court made its decision. While conflicts of interests are an important issue in criminal defense, that may be cold comfort to the defendant who must wait to hear about his fate — and it can be avoided by defendants who choose to hire their own private south Florida criminal defense attorneys. Public defenders do an important job, but they are often given larger case loads than comparable private-sector attorneys. This can leave them poorly equipped to give unusual cases enough attention. As a Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyer, I prefer to reduce the volume of my cases, even if that means making less money, so that I have time to give each client the best representation I can.

Seltzer Law, P.A., represents clients across Florida from offices in downtown Miami. For a free, confidential evaluation of your case, send us a message online or call us anytime at 1-888-THE-DEFENSE (1-888-843-3333).

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