People v. Coria

Decision Date14 April 1997
Docket NumberNo. 95SC750,95SC750
Citation937 P.2d 386
Parties21 Colorado Journal 534 The PEOPLE of the State of Colorado, Petitioner, v. David CORIA, Respondent.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Stuart A. VanMeveren, District Attorney, Eighth Judicial District, Loren B. Schall, Assistant District Attorney, Fort Collins, for Petitioner.

David F. Vela, State Public Defender, Andrew A. Saliman, Deputy State Public Defender, Eric Sims, Jr., Deputy State Public Defender, Englewood, for Respondent.

Justice HOBBS delivered the Opinion of the Court.

We granted certiorari to review the Larimer County District Court's order in People v. Coria, No. 94CR1093 (Nov. 6, 1995), reversing the defendant's conviction for driving while ability impaired (DWAI) and weaving, and remanding the case to the Larimer County Court for a new trial. 1 The district court reversed the county court's decision on three grounds: (1) the county court's refusal to allow the defendant, David Coria (Coria), to be represented by a law student intern denied him counsel of choice; (2) the county court's comment on a defense counsel objection during the prosecutor's closing argument constituted error which affected the fairness of the proceedings; and (3) the county court's direction to jurors to mark "defendant's theory of the case" singled that instruction out in a manner which denied Coria a fair trial. We disagree, reverse the decision of the district court, and remand with directions to reinstate the jury verdict and judgment of conviction.

I.

In Fort Collins, on October 21, 1993, at approximately 7:50 p.m., Officer Deanna Deyen observed a car weaving ahead of her. The car crossed the center yellow line three times. Coria failed a field sobriety test and was placed under arrest for driving under the influence (DUI), pursuant to section 42-4-1202(1)(a), 17 C.R.S. (1993) (now codified as section 42-4-1301(1)(a), 17 C.R.S. (1996 Supp.)), and weaving, pursuant to section 42-4-907, 17 C.R.S. (1993) (now codified as section 42-4-1007, 17 C.R.S. (1996 Supp.)).

Prior to trial, Coria was represented by a deputy public defender who was assisted by a certified law student intern, pursuant to sections 12-5-116 to -116.5, 5A C.R.S. (1991). On the day of the scheduled trial, April 18, 1994, this deputy public defender could not appear because of a scheduling conflict and assigned the case to the law student intern, to try with another public defender acting as co-chair.

The county court then called a conference with the chief judge of the district court, the law student intern, the second public defender, and the deputy district attorney assigned to the case, after which the county judge declined to allow the student's appearance in the manner proposed. All proceedings were stayed so that the Public Defender's Office could consider an appeal of this ruling.

On June 9, 1994, the Public Defender's Office filed a Motion to Reconsider, which was denied. The defense then made a motion to continue the case for trial, and Coria waived his right to a speedy trial. When the trial occurred, Coria was represented by the second public defender, assisted by a different law student intern who was allowed to sit at defense counsel's table, deliver closing argument, and cross-examine one witness.

At the conclusion of trial testimony, the county court read the instructions to the jury. One of the jury instructions was a defendant's theory of the case instruction. The court instructed the jurors to mark "defendant's theory of the case" on this instruction.

After defense counsel's closing argument, the prosecuting attorney made the following comment to the jury:

That was very nice. Theatrics 101. That, I'm sure, would receive a very good grade.

What is defense (inaudible). The defense is smoke and mirrors. Let's create some diversionary tactics and (inaudible).

The defense objected, and the trial court stated, "Counsel, you know that's proper. You're just objecting to interrupt his flow and your objection is overruled." The defense had previously objected twice during the first part of the prosecutor's closing argument, and three more times after this objection; all were overruled.

The jury returned a verdict of guilty on the charges of DWAI and weaving. Coria filed a motion for new trial, which was denied. At sentencing, the trial court imposed a fine of $300, twenty-four months probation, thirty days in jail as a condition of the probation, forty-eight hours of useful public service for the DWAI offense, and an additional fine of $35 for the weaving offense, plus court costs and fees.

Coria appealed to the Larimer County District Court, raising several assignments of error. The district court reversed the conviction for DWAI and weaving, and remanded the case to the county court for a new trial because: (1) the "refusal to allow defendant to be represented by counsel of his choice constituted reversible error, denying him a fair trial"; (2) the county court's comment to defense counsel during the prosecutor's closing argument "was improper and prejudicial" and "constituted error which affected the fairness of the proceedings"; and (3) when the county court told "the jury during the reading of the instructions to mark 'defendant's theory of the case' on the instruction," it "denie[d] defendant a fair trial." The prosecution petitioned for certiorari review, which was granted. We now reverse the district court's decision and remand with instructions to reinstate the judgment of conviction.

II.

The district court erred in determining that the Sixth Amendment right to the assistance of counsel encompasses representation by a law student. As to the other issues, the trial court should not have directed the jury to mark defendant's theory of the case instruction, nor should the trial court have commented that defense counsel's interruption of the prosecutor's closing argument was knowingly improper and only for the sake of disruption. Nevertheless, neither of these occurrences deprived Coria of a fair trial.

A.

The district court concluded that the county court had refused "to allow defendant to be represented by counsel of his choice" in violation of the Sixth Amendment. The district court incorrectly analyzed the applicable law.

Indigent criminal defendants have a fundamental right to counsel for the trial of their cases, but not an absolute right to demand a particular attorney. See People v. Arguello, 772 P.2d 87, 92 (Colo.1989). The substitution of one public defender with another does not violate the Sixth Amendment right to counsel, absent evidence of prejudice. See People v. Gardenhire, 903 P.2d 1165, 1168 (Colo.App.1995) (perceiving no reversible error in the trial court's ruling to deny motion to continue due to scheduling conflict of the counsel of record). However, the law student intern was neither a deputy public defender nor a licensed Colorado practitioner. Defendants do not have a right under the Sixth Amendment to be represented by unlicensed persons. "[A]n advocate who is not a member of the bar may not represent clients ... in court." Wheat v. United States, 486 U.S. 153, 159, 108 S.Ct. 1692, 1697, 100 L.Ed.2d 140(1988). Colorado statutory law does provide that a certified law student intern may participate in municipal and county court proceedings as part of a learning program, subject to the supervisory jurisdiction of this court and the approval of the trial court.

This court has the sole authority to license attorneys in this state and to prescribe the rules and circumstances under which a person may appear as counsel in Colorado courts. Section 12-5-101, 5A C.R.S. (1991) requires a license to practice law in Colorado and states that: "No person shall be permitted to practice as an attorney- or counselor-at-law ... without having previously obtained a license for that purpose from the supreme court."

The public defender argues that we certified this law student under sections 12-5-116.2 and -116.3; consequently, the student had a right to appear and try this case. We disagree. This argument misperceives our supervisory powers and the statute governing law student interns. In preparation for their intended future profession, certified law students may appear in a county or municipal court criminal proceeding under the supervision of a Colorado licensed attorney and with the client's consent, as provided by section 12-5-116.1(1):

(1) An eligible law student intern, as specified in section 12-5-116.2, may appear and participate in ... any county or municipal court criminal proceeding, except when the defendant has been charged with a felony ... under the following circumstances:

(a) If the person on whose behalf he is appearing has indicated his consent to that appearance and the law student intern is under the supervision of a supervising lawyer, as specified in section 12-5-116.4;

(b) When representing the office of the state public defender and its clients, if the person on whose behalf he is appearing has indicated his consent to that appearance and the law student intern is under the supervision of the public defender or one of his deputies; and

(c) On behalf of the state or any of its departments, agencies, or institutions, a county, a city, or a town, with the written approval and under the supervision of the attorney general, attorney for the state, county attorney, district attorney, city attorney, town attorney, or authorized legal services organization. A general approval for the law student intern to appear, executed by the appropriate supervising attorney pursuant to this paragraph (c), shall be filed with the clerk of the applicable court and brought to the attention of the judge thereof.

(Emphasis added.)

Additionally, section 12-5-116.2 sets out the eligibility requirements for a law student who seeks to appear and participate in court proceedings. The law student must be...

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