486 U.S. 153 (1988), 87-4, Wheat v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 87-4
Citation:486 U.S. 153, 108 S.Ct. 1692, 100 L.Ed.2d 140, 56 U.S.L.W. 4441
Party Name:Wheat v. United States
Case Date:May 23, 1988
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 153

486 U.S. 153 (1988)

108 S.Ct. 1692, 100 L.Ed.2d 140, 56 U.S.L.W. 4441



United States

No. 87-4

United States Supreme Court

May 23, 1988

Argued March 2, 1988




Petitioner, along with numerous codefendants, including Gomez-Barajas and Bravo, was charged with participating in a far-flung drug distribution conspiracy. At the time of petitioner's trial, the District Court was considering Gomez-Barajas' offer to plead guilty to certain charges stemming from the conspiracy, and had already accepted Bravo's guilty plea to one count. Both Gomez-Barajas and Bravo were represented by attorney Iredale. Two court days before his trial was to commence, petitioner moved for the substitution of Iredale as his counsel as well. Despite petitioner's assertion of his Sixth Amendment right to the counsel of his choice, and his willingness, as well as that of Gomez-Barajas and Bravo, to waive the right to [108 S.Ct. 1694] conflict-free counsel, the court denied the substitution motion on the basis of irreconcilable and unwaiveable conflicts of interest for Iredale created by the likelihood that petitioner would be called to testify at any subsequent trial of Gomez-Barajas, and that Bravo would testify at petitioner's trial. Petitioner therefore proceeded to trial with his original counsel and was convicted. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The District Court did not err in declining petitioner's waiver of his right to conflict-free counsel and in refusing to permit his proposed substitution of attorneys. In multiple-representation cases, district courts have a duty to take such measures as are appropriate to protect criminal defendants against counsel's conflicts of interest, including the issuance of separate representation orders. Moreover, they often must do so at the pretrial stage, where relationships between parties are unclear, and the likelihood and dimensions of nascent conflicts of interest are hard to predict. The provision of waivers by all affected parties will not necessarily cure any problems, since the courts have an independent interest in assuring compliance with ethical standards and the appearance of fairness, and since several Courts of Appeals have demonstrated an apparent willingness to entertain ineffective-assistance claims by defendants who have specifically waived the right to conflict-free counsel. Thus, the district courts must be allowed substantial latitude to evaluate in the light of their informed judgment the facts and circumstances of each case, including any attempt by the Government to "manufacture" a conflict to prevent a defendant from obtaining particularly able counsel.

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Although the courts must recognize the Sixth Amendment presumption in favor of counsel of choice, that presumption may be overcome not only by a demonstration of actual conflict but also by a showing of a serious potential for conflict. Here, where the substitution motion was made so close to trial, it cannot be said that the District Court abused its discretion, since it was presented with complex litigation that was likely to engender conflicts of interest for Iredale if he was permitted to represent both petitioner and his codefendants. Pp. 158-164.

813 F.2d 1399, affirmed.

REHNQUIST, C.J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, O'CONNOR, SCALIA, and KENNEDY, JJ., joined. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN, J., joined, post, p. 165. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 172.

REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The issue in this case is whether the District Court erred in declining petitioner's waiver of his right to conflict-free counsel and by refusing to permit petitioner's proposed substitution of attorneys.


Petitioner Mark Wheat, along with numerous codefendants, was charged with participating in a far-flung drug distribution conspiracy. Over a period of several years, many thousands of pounds of marijuana were transported from Mexico and other locations to southern California. Petitioner acted primarily as an intermediary in the distribution ring; he received and stored large shipments of marijuana at his home, then distributed the marijuana to customers in the region.

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Also charged in the conspiracy were Juvenal Gomez-Barajas and Javier Bravo, who were represented in their criminal proceedings [108 S.Ct. 1695] by attorney Eugene Iredale. Gomez-Barajas was tried first and was acquitted on drug charges overlapping with those against petitioner. To avoid a second trial on other charges, however, Gomez-Barajas offered to plead guilty to tax evasion and illegal importation of merchandise. At the commencement of petitioner's trial, the District Court had not accepted the plea; Gomez-Barajas was thus free to withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial.

Bravo, evidently a lesser player in the conspiracy, decided to forgo trial and plead guilty to one count of transporting approximately 2,400 pounds of marijuana from Los Angeles to a residence controlled by Victor Vidal. At the conclusion of Bravo's guilty plea proceedings on August 22, 1985, Iredale notified the District Court that he had been contacted by petitioner and had been asked to try petitioner's case as well. In response, the Government registered substantial concern about the possibility of conflict in the representation. After entertaining some initial discussion of the substitution of counsel, the District Court instructed the parties to present more detailed arguments the following Monday, just one day before the scheduled start of petitioner's trial.

At the Monday hearing, the Government objected to petitioner's proposed substitution on the ground that Iredale's representation of Gomez-Barajas and Bravo created a serious conflict of interest. The Government's position was premised on two possible conflicts. First, the District Court had not yet accepted the plea and sentencing arrangement negotiated between Gomez-Barajas and the Government; in the event that arrangement were rejected by the court, Gomez-Barajas would be free to withdraw the plea and stand trial. He would then be faced with the prospect of representation by Iredale, who in the meantime would have acted as petitioner's attorney. Petitioner, through his participation in the drug distribution scheme, was familiar with the sources

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and size of Gomez-Barajas' income, and was thus likely to be called as a witness for the Government at any subsequent trial of Gomez-Barajas. This scenario would pose a conflict of interest for Iredale, who would be prevented from cross-examining petitioner, and thereby from effectively representing Gomez-Barajas.

Second, and of more immediate concern, Iredale's representation of Bravo would directly affect his ability to act as counsel for petitioner. The Government believed that a portion of the marijuana delivered by Bravo to Vidal's residence eventually was transferred to petitioner. In this regard, the Government contacted Iredale and asked that Bravo be made available as a witness to testify against petitioner, and agreed in exchange to modify its position at the time of Bravo's sentencing. In the likely event that Bravo were called to testify, Iredale's position in representing both men would become untenable, for ethical proscriptions would forbid him to cross-examine Bravo in any meaningful way. By failing to do so, he would also fail to provide petitioner with effective assistance of counsel. Thus, because of Iredale's prior representation of Gomez-Barajas and Bravo and the potential for serious conflict of interest, the Government urged the District Court to reject the substitution of attorneys.

In response, petitioner emphasized his right to have counsel of his own choosing and the willingness of Gomez-Barajas, Bravo, and petitioner to waive the right to conflict-free counsel. Petitioner argued that the circumstances posited by the Government that would create a conflict for Iredale were highly speculative and bore no connection to the true relationship between the co-conspirators. If called to testify, Bravo would simply say that he did not know petitioner and had no dealings with him; no attempt by Iredale to impeach Bravo would be necessary. Further, in the unlikely event that Gomez-Barajas went to trial on the charges of tax evasion and illegal importation, petitioner's lack of involvement

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in those alleged crimes made [108 S.Ct. 1696] his appearance as a witness highly improbable. Finally, and most importantly, all three defendants agreed to allow Iredale to represent petitioner and to waive any future claims of conflict of interest. In petitioner's view, the Government was manufacturing implausible conflicts in an attempt to disqualify Iredale, who had already proved extremely effective in representing Gomez-Barajas and Bravo.

After hearing argument from each side, the District Court noted that it was unfortunate that petitioner had not suggested the substitution sooner, rather than two court days before the commencement of trial. The court then ruled:

[B]ased upon the representation of the Government in [its] memorandum that the Court really has no choice at this point other than to find that an irreconcilable conflict of interest exists. I don't think it can be waived, and accordingly, Mr. Wheat's request to substitute Mr. Iredale in as attorney of record is denied.

App. 100-101. Petitioner proceeded to trial with his original counsel, and was convicted of conspiracy to possess more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, and five counts of possessing marijuana with intent to distribute, in violation of § 841(a)(1).

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