State v. Miller, 20-0359

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Iowa
Writing for the CourtCHRISTENSEN, Chief Justice.
PartiesSTATE OF IOWA, Appellee, v. WALTER LEE MILLER JR., Appellant.
Docket Number20-0359
Decision Date17 June 2022

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.

WALTER LEE MILLER JR., Appellant.

No. 20-0359

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 17, 2022


Submitted March 24, 2022

On review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Scott County, Henry W. Latham II, Judge.

A defendant appeals his convictions, arguing the district court erred by granting his appointed counsel's motion to withdraw and by concluding the defendant waived his right to counsel.

Thomas Hurd (argued) of Law Office of Thomas Hurd P.LC., Des Moines, for appellant.

Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Martha E. Trout (argued) and Israel Kodiaga, Assistant Attorneys General, for appellee.

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Christensen, C.J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which all justices joined. Appel, J., filed a concurrence.

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OPINION

CHRISTENSEN, Chief Justice.

The district court granted defense counsel's motion to withdraw from representation of the defendant about three weeks before the defendant's speedy trial expiration date after defense counsel declared further representation of the defendant would result in counsel's violation of our professional rules or other laws. Although the district court offered to appoint another attorney to represent the defendant, the defendant insisted on representing himself with the assistance of standby counsel. After conducting colloquies at the withdrawal hearing and again immediately prior to the start of trial, the district court concluded the defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to counsel and allowed the defendant to proceed pro se with the assistance of standby counsel.

A jury convicted the defendant on three charges. On appeal, the defendant, argues the district court abused its discretion by granting defense counsel's motion to withdraw and erred in concluding the defendant knowingly, voluntarily, and intelligently waived his right to counsel. We transferred the case to the court of appeals, which affirmed the defendant's convictions.

On further review, we also affirm the defendant's convictions. The district court did not abuse its discretion by granting defense counsel's motion to withdraw based on defense counsel's statements that professional considerations required termination of the representation. Additionally, the district court correctly concluded the defendant knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to counsel after engaging in a thorough colloquy.

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I. Background Facts and Proceedings.

On August 23, 2019, police officers responded to a disturbance call in Davenport with reports that Walter Miller Jr. assaulted another man with a machete. The victim and witnesses reported Miller left the scene "in a silver Crown Victoria shaped vehicle" to return to his home, where the officers subsequently arranged a perimeter and conducted a traffic stop on the vehicle behind Miller's residence. The search of Miller's vehicle pursuant to the stop revealed approximately fifteen grams of methamphetamine. Miller made his initial appearance the next day on three criminal complaints: possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, failure to affix a drug stamp, and assault while displaying a dangerous weapon. At Miller's request, the district court appointed defense counsel, and that counsel filed an appearance on Miller's behalf and waived the preliminary hearing on August 26.

The State formally charged Miller by trial information on September 17 with possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, third or subsequent offense, in violation of Iowa Code section 124.401(5) (2019), failure to affix a drug tax stamp in violation of section 453B.12(2), assault while displaying a dangerous weapon in violation of section 708.2(3), and willful injury causing serious injury in violation of section 708.4(2). On September 18, Miller entered a written arraignment and demanded his right to speedy trial. During a pretrial conference on October 4, a final pretrial conference was set for November 27 and trial was set for December 2 with a notation that speedy trial required the trial to be held by December 16, 2019.

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On November 19, Miller's defense counsel filed a motion to withdraw representation. In relevant part, the motion stated,

2. Further representation of Defendant would result in me violating the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct and/or other laws. I cannot be more specific without violating attorney-client privilege.
3. I have tried unsuccessfully to resolve the issue.
4. I am therefore required to withdraw from further representation of Defendant pursuant to Iowa Rule of Professional Conduct 32:1.16(a)(1).

The district court held a hearing on this motion on November 26. Defense counsel reiterated what he stated in his motion to the district court, and the district court asked Miller if he had "any objection." Miller responded, "By being so close to trial, what am I supposed to do?" The district court told Miller that the State filed a motion to continue but that the court believed there was "a speedy trial issue." The State countered, asserting that Miller's speedy-trial demand required the trial to be held by December 16 and that the State was "perfectly willing to try [the case] December 9 or 16" but had a witness availability issue on December 2. Miller told the district court, "I don't want to waive my 90 days, if that's what he's saying. No."

The district court explained to Miller that he had a constitutional right to counsel but "based on the colloquy that [the court] . . . had with [Miller's] attorney, [the court] believe[s] [it] ha[s] no choice but to grant his application to withdraw." However, the district court then reversed its ruling on that issue. The court told Miller, "[B]ecause you have the right to have an attorney appointed to represent you, I am willing to appoint another attorney to represent you. Do you

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request the appointment of counsel?" Miller replied, "No." The district court asked Miller, "Is it your desire, then, to continue in this matter and represent yourself," to which Miller answered, "Yes."

The district court conducted a Faretta colloquy[1] with Miller to determine whether he knowingly, intelligently, and voluntarily waived his right to counsel. During that colloquy, Miller indicated he did not have adequate time to discuss whether he would waive his right to representation with his attorney but also informed the district court that he did not want any time with his attorney to discuss the matter. Instead, he wished to proceed with the waiver of an attorney. The district court also asked then-defense counsel whether he believed it was in Miller's "best interests to waive his right to be represented by an attorney." Defense counsel stated,

I think Mr. Miller would be happier if he represented himself. I think that he has his own ideas about the best way to try the case, and he feels comfortable it's the best way to do it.
We haven't always agreed on certain things, but in terms of his -- I think he's got the ability to come up with the theory of the case and to argue it and to question witnesses. Whether it's gonna be successfully, I don't know.
But asking me if it's his best interests, I'm not sure how to begin to answer that question. I think Mr. Miller is aware of the risks. He's got a vision for what he wants to do with the case. It's his life. If that's the way he wants to go, then so be it.
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The district court again asked Miller if it was his "desire to not have an experienced, trained, and licensed attorney represent [him]" and whether he preferred to represent himself. Miller explained, "Well, from what happened today, I mean, about him getting off my case, I wouldn't want it to go any longer than what it's already been, so I decided to represent myself." Miller informed the district court that he had previously represented himself in a past case with the assistance of standby counsel. Miller proceeded to express his complaints about his current defense counsel noting, "I'm not getting nothing that I asked for in my case. I'm not getting my depositions. I'm not getting a certain witness. I'm not getting certain video footage from officers. I mean, it would be the same. I mean, I can do everything myself, I feel." He later explained, "I feel if I go to trial and if I just tell exactly what happened and how everything happened, I feel like I would be free, and that's how I feel."

After the district court continued to warn Miller of the perils of representing himself, Miller requested the assistance of standby counsel. Defense counsel informed the district court that he believed it would still be unethical for him to serve as standby counsel under the circumstances because he would "be in the same ethical situation [he's] in now" if he had to assist Miller during the trial. The district court subsequently asked the prosecutor whether he believed "the matter could be continued to a time within [Miller's] 90-day speedy trial demand and still allow standby counsel to be brought up to speed in this matter, in [his] opinion[.]" The prosecutor answered, "Yeah, I could walk into this case and be standby counsel. It'd just be an issue as to whether standby

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counsel was appointed to someone else that has a speedy trial demand on whatever date we're dealing with."

At the conclusion of the hearing, the district court found Miller made a knowing, voluntary, and intelligent decision to represent himself, though the district court also found it "appropriate to appoint standby counsel" and granted the State's motion to continue the trial to December 9. The court indicated it would grant the public defender's motion to withdraw but only after standby counsel was in place.

The next day, November 27, the district court filed a written order granting defense counsel's motion to withdraw and appointing...

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