People v. Leroy Savage Smith


Issue Presented: Whether a trial court may summarily deny a request for new counsel on the eve of trial, or must make a minimal inquiry under People v. Sides (75 NY2d 822), where defendant alleges ineffective assistance of counsel as the basis for the substitution. Although its opinion did not include the defendant’s specific allegations, defendant said his Onondaga County 18-B attorney failed to contact any of the exculpatory witnesses he named or do any investigation into the assault where he claimed self-defense.  Defendant also said that his attorney told him that there was no money to hire and investigator to do so, thus implicating Hinton v Alabama (571 US __; 134 S Ct 1081 [2014]).  Despite such allegations, the Fourth Department, citing People v Porto (16 NY3d 93) found that Mr. Smith “failed to proffer specific allegations of a seemingly serious request that would require the court to engage in a minimal inquiry.”


Held: The Court simply “agree[d] with the defendant that the trial court failed to adequately inquire into his “seemingly serious request[]” to substitute counsel.” Without mentioning any of the facts, if thus held that the trial court abused its discretion in conducting no inquiry.


CAL Observes: Neither the Fourth Department nor the Court of Appeals mentioned any of the defendant’s specific allegations in coming to opposite conclusions, thus providing future litigants with no insight as to what specific complaints a defendant might make to trigger the need for an inquiry. Both courts did this on purpose (see the Webcast or Transcript of the October 12, 2017, oral argument on the Court’s website). The idea that trial courts in Onondaga County will not appoint experts for indigent defendants – the claim that got the top court’s attention – was too explosive to put on paper. (until now.)