People v. Lopez.
2022 COA 97. No. 19CA0287. Sixth Amendment—Right to Conflict-Free Representation—Prosecutorial Misconduct.
September 1, 2022
Defendant was charged with seven felony counts. He was represented by counsel, and during the representation, defense counsel was charged with two counts of driving under restraint. The trial court inquired whether defense counsel had gone through the advisement/conflict of interest waiver issues with defendant, and defense counsel stated that he had. The court then asked defendant whether he was aware of the circumstances and wished to continue the representation, and defendant responded affirmatively. Defendant was convicted as charged.
On appeal, defendant argued that the trial court violated his constitutional right to conflict-free counsel. A conflict of interest exists when defense counsel’s own interests could limit counsel’s ability to represent a client. A defendant is entitled to conflict-free counsel but may waive that right when fully advised of the existing or potential conflict. When a trial court learns that counsel has a conflict of interest, it must inquire into the propriety of continued representation on the record by explaining to the defendant the nature of the conflict and determining that the defendant understands the right to conflict-free representation. The trial court has broad discretion in this inquiry but must, at a minimum, ensure that the defendant understands the specific nature of the conflict. Here, the court only asked defendant if he was aware of “current circumstances”; it did not mention that defense counsel had been criminally charged. Therefore, the court’s inquiry was procedurally deficient. Accordingly, the trial court erred.
The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.