People v. Tineo

Decision Date04 April 1985
Parties, 479 N.E.2d 795 The PEOPLE of the State of New York, Respondent, v. Jose TINEO, Appellant.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
OPINION OF THE COURT

JASEN, Judge.

We are asked on this appeal whether the trial court erred in granting defense counsel's motion to be relieved on the ground that he had previously represented the People's confidential informant, and rejecting counsel's subsequent request, three days later, to be reinstated.

This criminal prosecution arose from the participation of defendant, Jose Tineo, in a scheme to sell heroin to an undercover police officer during October and early November of 1978. Defendant was arrested on November 16, 1978, and the indictment, filed on November 22, 1978, charged defendant and a coconspirator with two counts of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first degree, one count each of conspiracy in the second degree and criminal sale of a controlled substance in the second and third degrees, and six related counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance in various degrees.

On January 4, 1980, during a pretrial hearing which was to precede the selection of a jury, defendant sought to discharge his retained attorney, Kenneth Linn. Defendant contended that Linn was "not cooperating" and had "done nothing" for him. The court denied the motion, noting that defendant had not previously voiced dissatisfaction with counsel, defense counsel was capable and had thoroughly prepared for trial, and the motion, made on the eve of trial, was a dilatory tactic. On the morning of January 7, 1980, Linn informed the court that a confidential informant would testify at trial on behalf of the People and that Linn had previously represented the informant. Linn advised the court that there could very easily be a conflict of interest, and requested that the court relieve him as defense counsel. Upon Linn's own application, the court "reluctantly" relieved Linn. 1 Although present in court, defendant did not object to the removal of his retained lawyer.

On January 10, 1980, Frederick Seligman appeared as defendant's assigned lawyer, and asserted that he was "ready, willing, and able to proceed" provided that he secured a continuance of one or two weeks. Linn and Seligman informed the court of defendant's objection to representation by Seligman, and Linn informed the court that he had reassessed his earlier position and now sought to be reinstated as defense counsel. Linn, who never unequivocally stated that he had no confidential information derived from his prior relationship with the informant, asserted that any potential conflict of interest resulting from his previous representation of the confidential informant could be avoided by limiting his cross-examination of the informant to matters contained in the informant's criminal record ("rap sheet"). The court, in response to Seligman, noted that defendant had made an application on the previous Friday to have Linn removed or relieved. The prosecutor objected to reinstatement of Linn based on his view that "it's a clear conflict of interest for an attorney to be cross-examining a former client while he is representing him as an attorney." 2 The record does not reveal whether or not the confidential informant had a view as to Linn's removal.

In response to Seligman and Linn, the court observed that "trial delay" would result from removal, the reason for relieving him must be a "very important issue", potential prejudice could result if "Linn knew something about the confidential informant that he learned from his relationship as an attorney", and the court and parties had advance knowledge of the potential conflict. 3 Defendant supported Linn's application for reinstatement, stating that he was no longer dissatisfied with his representation and thought that Linn was "more familiar with the case" than Seligman, further delay would be undesirable, and Linn had already been paid for his services. The court adhered to its earlier decision relieving Linn, but permitted Linn to assist with the defense, if Linn wished, albeit in a position other than attorney of record.

Defendant, dissatisfied with assigned counsel, represented himself at certain pretrial hearings and at trial. Assigned counsel Seligman, acting as legal advisor to defendant, also participated in the proceedings. Supreme Court, New York County, convicted defendant, upon a jury verdict, of criminal sale of a controlled substance in the first degree and lesser related offenses, and sentenced him to concurrent terms of imprisonment with a maximum of life imprisonment and a minimum of 15 years imprisonment. The Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the judgment, without opinion, 99 A.D.2d 1032, 473 N.Y.S.2d 295 and leave to appeal was granted by this court. For the reasons that follow, the order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed.

On appeal to this court, defendant claims that the trial court's order relieving his retained attorney was error. Notably, he makes no argument that he was deprived of effective assistance of counsel at trial, only that he was deprived of counsel of his choice. 4 This alleged error is not preserved for our review as defendant did not voice any objection to his attorney's application to be relieved as defense counsel. The only question properly before us is whether the trial court correctly denied, in its discretion, defendant's request to reinstate his former counsel to defend him.

There can be little doubt that the right to counsel, as guaranteed by both the State and Federal Constitutions (N.Y. Const., art. I, § 6; U.S. Const. 6th amend.) incorporates the right of a criminal defendant to representation by an attorney of his own choosing (People v. Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d 264, 270, 425 N.Y.S.2d 282, 401 N.E.2d 393; Chandler v. Fretag, 348 U.S. 3, 9, 75 S.Ct. 1, 4, 99 L.Ed. 4) and that judicial restriction or governmental intrusion upon the exercise of this fundamental right will be carefully scrutinized (United States v. Hobson, 672 F.2d 825; Matter of Abrams [John Anonymous], 62 N.Y.2d 183, 196, 476 N.Y.S.2d 494, 465 N.E.2d 1). The constitutional contours of an individual's right to select an attorney of his own choice, prior to the commencement of a criminal proceeding, have been recently explored in Matter of Abrams (John Anonymous) (supra). 5 In that case, we held that until defendants are charged with a crime, they are free, absent a clear showing of extraordinary circumstances or overriding public necessity, to employ the attorney or attorneys of their choice without judicial interference. (Matter of Abrams [John Anonymous], 62 N.Y.2d 183, 200, 476 N.Y.S.2d 494, 465 N.E.2d 1, supra.) The right to counsel of choice is not diminished once the criminal action has been commenced. However, when the case is pending in the courts, a request to change counsel previously retained or assigned must be addressed to the Trial Judge's discretion to insure that the defendant's purported exercise of the right does not serve to delay or obstruct the criminal proceedings. (People v. Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d 264, supra, at p. 271, 425 N.Y.S.2d 282, 401 N.E.2d 393.) That discretion is especially broad when the defendant's actions with respect to counsel place the court in the dilemma of having to choose between undesirable alternatives, either one of which would theoretically provide the defendant with a basis for appellate review.

Under the circumstances present in this case, it cannot be said, as a matter of law, that the trial court abused its discretion upon granting defense counsel's motion to be relieved or denying the said counsel's subsequent motion for reinstatement. Linn's own motion to be relieved was made on the eve of trial, supported by his own assertion that a conflict of interest could very easily arise, and not contested by defendant. Under these circumstances, the trial court did not err, as a matter of law, in granting Linn's application to be relieved. Nor did the trial court err in denying Linn's motion for reinstatement. It is no abuse of discretion for a trial court, acting on the eve of trial, to consider the interests of judicial economy, the integrity of the criminal process, and continuous vacillation of both defendant and counsel, in denying a motion for reinstatement. (People v. Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d 264, 270, 273, 425 N.Y.S.2d 282, 401 N.E.2d 393, supra.) 6

Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed.

KAYE, Judge (dissenting).

The majority gives insufficient weight to defendant's right to counsel of his choice, and strikes an improper balance between this right and perceived countervailing considerations.

Embraced within the right to counsel, guaranteed by both the Federal and State Constitutions, is the right of a criminal defendant to be represented by counsel of his own choosing (People v. Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d 264, 270, 425 N.Y.S.2d 282, 401 N.E.2d 393). This right is not limited to the period before trial begins, so long as the exercise of defendant's right is not employed for delay (id., at p. 271, 425 N.Y.S.2d 282, 401 N.E.2d 393). While the right is not absolute, restrictions must be carefully scrutinized (Matter of Abrams [John Anonymous], 62 N.Y.2d 183, 196, 476 N.Y.S.2d 494, 465 N.E.2d 1). This judicial reluctance to interfere with choice of counsel serves many vital interests, among them fostering an atmosphere of trust which facilitates the free communication necessary for effective representation (People v. Arroyave, 49 N.Y.2d 264, 270, 425 N.Y.S.2d 282, 401 N.E.2d 393, supra ). Accordingly, as this court has recently held, an individual's right to select counsel "will not yield unless confronted with some...

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