Attorneys and their clients do not always get along. Unpaid fees, differences in defense tactics, false or misinformation shared between the two, and sometimes just plain personality conflicts can create an impractical, if not impossible, mutual working relationship. When these unfortunate circumstances arise, counsel will generally file a motion to withdraw from the case, citing “irreconcilable differences” that prevent counsel from providing the defendant with an adequate defense.
That’s what happen between Fernando Diaz-Rodriquez (“Diaz”) and Carlos Noriega. On March 17, 2014, the First Circuit Court of Appeals in United States v. Diaz-Rodriquez introduced us to the back story of how these two gentlemen came to forge an attorney/client relationship that eventually soured.
In September 2010, Diaz and four confederates robbed an armored truck in Puerto Rico. It was a bloody, chaotic mess. Multiple shots were fired by the robbers, one or more of which struck and seriously injured an armed guard. The bullets were fired in such a recklessly manner that one of them struck and also seriously injured Diaz requiring medical treatment.
Diaz was arrested shortly after the robbery. He retained Noriega as his attorney. Noriega attempted to negotiate a plea agreement. For reasons not explained by the appeals court, the plea agreement efforts fell through at which time it became clear between the attorney/client that Diaz could no longer afford to pay for Noriega’s representation. It can be reasonably assumed that this was the start of the acrimony in their relationship.
Diaz’s trial was scheduled for May 3, 2011. The First Circuit reported that the “government learned that Diaz-Rodriquez was having difficulties with his counsel … and consequently might be seeking substitute counsel.” This is where the Government demonstrated disregard for a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of his/her choice. The Government filed a motion on April 14 which informed the district court of the suspected strained relationship between Diaz/Noriega and urged the court to set a deadline for Diaz to retain new counsel. In the alternative, the Government requested a pretrial conference between the parties with the defendant present.
Federal district court judges are powerful, almost omnificent arbiters, especially when it comes to ruling on pretrial motions and, in particular, those motions that might upset the trial schedule. That’s apparently the way the trial judge felt about the Diaz/Noriega conflict: it had the unacceptable potential to disrupt a scheduled trial date. The day after the judge received the Government’s motion, and even before Noriega had a chance to respond to it, he issued a “summary electronic order” informing the parties that “at this late date defendant will not be allowed to retain new counsel.”
It was a bad ruling. The judge had unilaterally issued an order that knotted Diaz/Noriega at the hip without so much as trying to ascertain, first, whether there was an attorney/client conflict, and, second, if so, the nature of that conflict.
As it turned out, Diaz’s medical condition worsened forcing the need for him to undergo “numerous surgeries” which, as the First Circuit noted, “repeatedly continued the trial” before a firm April 16, 2012 trial date could be reset. The conflict between Diaz/Noriega, however, had not resolved itself, prompting the defense counsel for file an “irreconcilable differences” motion to withdraw. He informed the trial judge that the “essential aspect of the attorney-client relationship must rest on the trust the defendant has in his attorney. It is destroyed when the client places his trust in another source.”
The Government opposed the motion that same day, March 31, 2012. And on April 2 the trial judge summarily denied the motion, once again via electronic order. Not to be deterred, Noriega on April 12 filed a motion for continuance, again citing “the breakdown in the attorney-client relationship.” The Government again responded that same day, opposing the motion. And, again, the trial judge didn’t mince words: on April 13 he summarily denied the motion as an “untimely and speculative request.” Noriega was not finished. On April 15 he filed a supplemental motion requesting reconsideration of his continuance request. He specifically detailed the “breakdown” between him and Diaz:
“In relation to the Attorney-Client relationship I have stated that it has been affected … The Sixth Amendment right is unique and profound in its meaning. It relies on the one and only element. It depends on TRUST. A defendant must trust his attorney. And when that requirement is affected the Attorney-Client privileges disappear for good.”
The trial judge simply noted the supplemental motion and ordered the trial to proceed as scheduled. The trial lasted from April 16 to April 18. The Government presented a compelling case. Noriega, on the other hand, chose, as the First Circuit pointed out, “to rely solely on the cross-examination of government witnesses and introduced no evidence.”
Diaz was convicted and the trial judge subsequently imposed a 360-month term of imprisonment.
It is evident from the record set forth by the First Circuit that the Government appeared determined to circumvent Diaz’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of his choice—a right recognized by the Supreme Court in 1932 in its renowned Powell v. Alabama [Scottoboro Boys) decision. However, in the years since Powell, the courts have said the right is not “absolute” and must be exercised in a manner that does not interfere with the “fair, efficient and orderly administration of justice.” Thus, when, as in the Diaz case, a defendant moves to substitute counsel as the scheduled trial date approaches, the First Circuit said the trial judge must balance the defendant’s “interest in retaining counsel of his choice against the public’s interest in the prompt, fair and ethical administration of justice.”
While a district court judge enjoys broad discretion in deciding whether to permit an attorney to withdraw from a case and allow a defendant to retain counsel of his choice, the First Circuit was clearly troubled by the summary manner in which the trial judge handled the Noriega/Diaz conflict. The appeals court expressed its dissatisfaction this way:
“The situation presented here is unusual in that the possibility of substituting defense counsel was first brought to the court’s attention by the government’s motion of April 14, 2011. The court then ruled on that motion the day after it was filed without giving Diaz-Rodriquez an opportunity to respond either by written submission or court appearance.
Although we acknowledge the heavy demands on the district court’s docket in Puerto Rico, the court’s failure to inquire in any fashion about the alleged breakdown in the attorney-client relationship is incompatible with the precedent already noted requiring such inquiry. It is telling that the government’s motion did not even seek the relief the court summarily granted – an order forbidding Diaz-Rodriquez from retaining new counsel – but instead sought only a deadline for retaining new counsel or a hearing on the matter.”
The First Circuit vacated Diaz’s conviction and sentence.
We can only suspect that Noriega informed Government prosecutors of the “irreconcilable differences” brewing between him and Diaz—and the prosecutors decided to preemptively circumvent his “counsel of choice” right. As it turned out, prosecutors didn’t even have to make their case; the trial judge summarily decided he was not going to entertain Diaz’s right to substitute counsel, period.
The interest of “fair, efficient and orderly administration of justice” was clearly not achieved here. Noriega and Diaz sat together through trial, under undoubtedly difficult circumstances and in an apparent conflict of interest. This created, at the very least, a denial of Diaz’ right to counsel and, even worse, questions about the effectiveness of legal representation under these circumstances. As the court said, “The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to counsel. An ‘essential component of that right is the accused’s opportunity to obtain counsel of his own choice.” So, without so much as conducting a hearing, or giving the defendant a chance to respond to the government’s motion, the Court’s preemptive order abused its discretion and violated Diaz’ Constitutional right to counsel.