People v. Holmes


Factual Background: Just before proceeding to trial with an attorney against whom he had filed a
complaint in another case, Mr. Holmes notified the trial court that he wanted to proceed pro se.
He did so by stating, “I would like to represent myself, if that’s possible.” The trial court
responded by warning Mr. Holmes about “someone who represents himself” and detailing the
“big mistake” he was making. The trial court then told Mr. Holmes, “Keep your lawyer,” and
ordered that the jury be brought in.

On appeal to the First Department, Mr. Holmes argued that the trial court violated his right to
self-representation when it clearly acknowledged his pro se request but failed to inquire into
whether the required was knowing and voluntary. The First Department held that, pursuant to
People v. Duarte, 37 N.Y.3d 1218 (2022), Mr. Holmes did not make an unequivocal pro se
request in the first place, and thus the First Department did not discuss the trial court’s failure to
inquire into the knowingness and voluntariness of the request.

Issue Before the Court: Whether the trial court’s response to Mr. Holmes’ request that he would
“like to represent [him]self” violated his right to self-representation, particularly in light of the
Court’s recent decision in People v. Duarte.

Held: “In contrast to People v. Duarte,” the trial court in Mr. Holmes’ case recognized that he
had “unequivocally requested to proceed pro se.” However, the trial court failed to conduct the
required “searching inquiry” into whether Mr. Holmes’ request was knowing, intelligent, and
voluntary. Given this failure, the Court of Appeals reversed the First Department’s decision and
ordered a new trial.

CAL Observes: In People v. Duarte, the Court found Mr. Duarte’s pro se request to be equivocal
when he stated that he “would love to go pro se” during a colloquy with the trial court regarding
his wish to relieve his attorney. Thus, the trial court’s failure to respond to the equivocal request
did not violate Mr. Duarte’s right to proceed pro se.

Of key importance in People v. Holmes, then, is the Court’s distinguishing of the facts from
those in Duarte by pointing out that the court here clearly recognized Mr. Holmes’ pro se request
for what it was. This distinction provides significant guidance for courts that may have otherwise
interpreted Duarte to be about Mr. Duarte’s phrasing alone rather than the overall circumstances
in which his pro se request was made.

This case provides a helpful guideline for courts and practitioners going forward: Where a
defendant makes a timely pro se request that is substantively responded to by the trial court, this
will generally trigger the trial court’s duty to conduct the necessary “searching inquiry” into the
knowingness, intelligence, and voluntariness of that request. Where the trial court fails to do so
in breach of that duty, it has violated the right to self-representation.