People v. William O'Daniel
AD3 order dated April 11, 2013, affirming judgment of conviction. Decision below: 105 AD3d 1144, 963 NYS2d 737. Lippman, Ch.J., granted leave July 26, 2013.
ISSUES PRESENTED: (1) Whether defendant was deprived of his right to counsel of his choice when his retained counsel chose another lawyer as a second chair, and the latter ended up representing defendant because of the former’s health problems. (2) Whether substitute counsel provided effective assistance at the trial. (3) Whether a nurse practitioner was properly allowed to testify that her examination of the child victim showed evidence of sexual abuse.
Background: The defendant was represented by an attorney and the case adjourned several times for his poor health. A week before trial a second lawyer represented defendant at a status conference in court. The second lawyer asked to adjourn at defendant’s request but had reviewed the trial file and was confident he could go forward. The prosecution opposed the adjournment and the court denied it. Prior to trial the second attorney renewed his request for an adjournment. The People opposed and the court again denied it. Counsel had not specified the basis for the requested adjournment. Following the conviction, a motion to set aside the verdict filed by the original attorney alleged that the denial of the adjournment violated the right to the defendant’s counsel of choice. The Appellate Division affirmed.
Held: The Court of Appeals with Justice Piggott writing for the majority held that, while a defendant has right to counsel of his choice, the right is qualified and must cede to the efficient administration of justice.
A trial court has wide latitude in balancing the defendant’s right to counsel of his choice against the needs of fairness and calendar control. The court is not required to indulge a request for an adjournment. While the court should inquire of counsel concerning the basis for an adjournment request, here there was no request for new counsel or for additional time to prepare for trial.
In dissent Justice Lippman observed that the facts established the defendant was forced to proceed to trial without justification.
It was clear that the defendant wanted an adjournment to retain new counsel. The civil rules of procedure give a party 30 days to get new counsel where counsel has to be substituted. Here the denial of the adjournment violated the defendant’s right to be represented by the attorney he chose.
CAL Observes: Once again, the Court was called upon to strike a balance between calendar control and the rights of the accused with disagreement about where the balance should be struck ensued. Attorneys requesting adjournments should set forth in detail the reason additional time is needed and the constitutional rights implicated by the denial of the request for an adjournment.