U.S. v. Rivera-Corona: Defendant Has Right Under Sixth Amendment to Court-Appointed Counsel After Discharging Private Criminal Defense Attorney

Aug 23, 2010

The Ninth Circuit reversed a district court judgment and sent it back for re-sentencing on Wednesday, August 18th. The court held that the district court did not undertake the proper inquiry on the defendant’s motion to relieve his counsel and proceed with a different, court-appointed lawyer. The defendant’s motion was rejected based on public expense and the late stage of the proceedings.

Trinidad Rivera-Corona pleaded guilty to carrying a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking crime. Prior to sentencing, according to Rivera-Corona, he did not get along with his retained counsel and that said he did not feel as though he could continue fighting his case before a jury without the attorney wanting more money and possibly suing his family. This statement was misinterpreted as a request to withdraw his guilty plea and a request for new counsel, both of which were denied.

The appellate court observed that under the Sixth Amendment, indigent defendants have a constitutional right to counsel, but not the right to a specific attorney. A defendant capable of hiring his own attorney has a different right to be represented by the attorney of his own choosing. Additionally, the Criminal Justice Act establishes that counsel can be appointed at any stage of the proceedings if the court found the defendant to be financially unable to pay counsel whom he retained. This applied to Rivera-Corona and the Ninth Circuit directed the district court to appoint counsel if he was financially eligible.

This case is: United States v. Rivera-Corona, 9th Cir; August 18, 2010; 08-30286.