State v. Rastrom

Decision Date27 January 1970
Citation261 A.2d 245
PartiesSTATE of Maine v. John C. RASTROM.
CourtMaine Supreme Court

Alexander A. MacNichol, Asst. County Atty., Portland, for the State.

Thomas Brand, Portland, for defendant.


WEBBER, Justice.

This appeal from a conviction for the offense of uttering a check in the amount of $49.50 comes to us on an agreed statement of facts. The sole issue presented is whether or not the denial by the Superior Court of a motion for continuance constituted an abuse of discretion.

On October 1, 1968 appellant was presented for arraignment in the District Court. Being found to be indigent, he was afforded the services of court appointed counsel. The appointed attorney, a highly competent and experienced practitioner, carefully guided appellant through the preliminary proceedings in the District Court. While awaiting grand jury consideration in the Superior Court, appellant summarily dismissed his assigned counsel, declared that no lawyer in the county would be acceptable to him, and indicated his intention to conduct his defense without counsel. Appellant was indicted January 13, 1969. On February 7, 1969 appellant wrote a letter to a resident Justice of the Superior Court in the county where the indictment was pending. The record does not disclose the purpose or content of this communication. The Justice who received appellant's letter arranged for appellant to be visited at the county jail by Thomas Brand, Esq., an attorney employed by Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Inc. Mr. Brand conferred with appellant on February 13 and again on February 17, 1969 and, as requested by the Justice of the Superior Court, advised appellant of his right to court appointed counsel. Appellant remained firm in his decision to represent himself. The trial was assigned on the court calendar to commence on February 17, 1969. At 10 A.M. on that day appellant was presented in court and restated his intention to proceed without counsel. The presiding Justice then advised him of the wisdom of accepting assigned counsel. Appellant then named an attorney who would be acceptable to him but the presiding Justice explained that this attorney was engaged in another county and not available to conduct appellant's trial. The Justice then suggested the appointment of Mr. Brand and appellant consented. Mr. Brand then requested time for preparation and the case was continued until 2 P.M. At the direction of the Court, the county attorney made his file available to Mr. Brand. The latter had earlier been present while the county attorney interviewed two of the State's witnesses. At 2 P.M. Mr. Brand renewed his request for continuance to permit him 'to make an independent investigation of the facts, to examine and research the law, to peruse the list of jurors, to confer with (his) client, to consult, and to reflect.' This motion was denied. The case was then tried before a jury and appellant was adjudged guilty. Thereafter Mr. Brand seasonably filed a motion for new trial on behalf of appellant supported by counsel's affidavit in essence reciting the foregoing facts. This motion was denied and an appeal was taken.

It should be noted at the outset that this record contains no transcript of the evidence taken at the trial. Appellant does not direct our attention to any specific occurrences at trial which would suggest that he was prejudiced or that his counsel was disadvantaged by lack of preparation. Nor does he suggest any effective defensive steps which might have been taken in his behalf but which were omitted because of the time available to counsel for preparation. His sole contention is that the shortness of time in and of itself raises a presumption of prejudice requiring a new trial.

We are reluctantly compelled to take note of the fact that the office of the County Attorney of Cumberland County has failed to provide us with either written or oral argument in this case. It is indeed a matter of serious concern when the public is not represented by its elected officials in the presentation of argument in the Law Court upon an important legal issue, novel in this jurisdiction, but which has engaged the attention of both state and federal courts. We are unable to conceive of any valid excuse for such inattention to public responsibility.

At the outset we deem it significant that appellant's persistent refusal to accept the services of court appointed counsel produced the situation of which he now complains. As early as October 1, 1968, 4 1/2 months before trial, appellant was represented by an attorney skilled and experienced in the preparation and trial of criminal cases. No reason whatever is shown for his abrupt dismissal of his counsel or his injudicious decision to act in his own behalf. His stubborn insistence upon a position inimical to his own interests persisted until the very moment when his case was scheduled for trial. We can fairly assume that a jury was then in attendance at great public expense and other important matters on the docket were being delayed while the appellant decided whether or not he would consent to being represented by assigned counsel. It was in this setting that the Court was required to determine what further delay he could properly permit, having in mind the proper and effective functioning of the Superior Court.

Courts faced with this problem have not hesitated to take account of the fact that delay is solely the fault of a respondent. In Ungar v. Sarafite (1964) 376 U.S 575, 84 S.Ct. 841, 850, 11 L.Ed.2d 921 the Supreme Court said:

'The court denied the motion for adjournment, being of the view that Ungar had been afforded sufficient time to hire counsel who would be available at the time of the scheduled hearing. We cannot say that this decision, in light of all the circumstances, denied petitioner due process.' (Emphasis ours).

In Neufield v. United States (1941) 73 App.D.C. 174, 118 F.2d 375, 383, (cert. den. 315 U.S. 798, 62 S.Ct. 580, 86 L.Ed. 1199) on facts bearing some similarity to those in the instant case, the court found no abuse of discretion. Counsel who had acted for defendant (Flynn) only for a special purpose was appointed by the court to defend him on the merits on the day the trial commenced. The court commented at length on the effect of the inaction of Flynn over an 'extended time' with respect to either retaining counsel or securing an appointment by the court. The court noted that there 'was no particularization of any way in which his defense could have been presented more adequately had a continuance been granted.'

The same emphasis was placed on the inaction of the defendant for a period of almost three months in Bolin v. State (1950) 209 Miss. 866, 48 So.2d 581.

Upon review of discretionary rulings, we have always required that the person claiming to be aggrieved thereby demonstrate that he has been prejudiced. 'There must be 'palpable error' or 'apparent injustice' to make a discretionary ruling reviewable. * * * The right of exception arises only where there is clear abuse of discretion and the burden to prove such abuse rests on him who alleges it.' (Emphasis supplied). State v. Hume (1951)146 Me. 129, 134, 78 A.2d 496. 'The granting of a continuance in a criminal case based upon want of time to prepare a defense rests in the sound discretion of the presiding justice.' State v. Wardwell (1962) 158 Me. 307, 310, 183 A.2d 896.

In State v. Carll (1965) 161 Me. 210, 214, 210 A.2d 680 we had occasion to consider some of the factors which make for a proper exercise of discretion. There we said:

'A presiding justice must maintain control of his docket if there is to be an orderly disposition of litigation. Whether or not a case is to be continued from term to term is within the sound discretion of the court and in a given case we look only to see if there has been a clear abuse of that discretion. The test is whether the granting or denying of a continuance is 'in furtherance of justice."

In Carll we had the benefit of the trial record from which we could determine 'that court appointed counsel conducted the defense with skill and competence.' Assessing the conduct of the respondent, we said:

'He failed for approximately a month to take reasonable and adequate steps to prepare for a trial which he knew to be imminent. A criminal respondent is ordinarily entitled to employ counsel of his own choice but that does not mean that the operation of the court must be adjusted to conform to his whim or preference.'

We recognize that in addition to determining whether any abuse of discretion has been shown, we must also satisfy ourselves that appellant has not been deprived of his constitutional right to effective representation by counsel. The leading case of Avery v. State of Alabama (1940) 308 U.S. 444, 60 S.Ct. 321, 84 L.Ed. 377 involved a charge of murder. Counsel was appointed on March 21, 1938, the day of arraignment. Trial commenced on March 24, 1938. The Court examined the 'particular circumstances appearing in this record' and found no 'indication * * * (counsel) could have done more had additional time been granted.' The Court stated, 'Since the Constitution nowhere specifies any period which must intervene between the required appointment of counsel and trial, the fact, standing alone, that a continuance has been denied, does not constitute a denial of the constitutional right to assistance of counsel.'

The presiding Justice may properly take into account the nature of the criminal charge to be tried, and whether or not the factual and legal issues appear to be relatively simple or complicated. In Commonwealth v. Chavis (1947) 357 Pa. 158, 53 A.2d 96, 100 (...

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  • State v. Allen
    • United States
    • Maine Supreme Court
    • June 16, 1972
    ...under the circumstances of this case will not be presumed, but must be shown. State v. Alley, 1970, Me., 263 A.2d 66; State v. Rastrom, 1970, Me., 261 A.2d 245. Where as in the instant case the motion for continuance is based upon want of time to prepare a defense, the granting of such a mo......
  • Rastrom v. Robbins
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of Maine
    • November 17, 1970
    ...On appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine, Chief Justice Williamson dissenting, affirmed petitioner's conviction. State v. Rastrom, 261 A.2d 245 (Me.1970). He has now filed in this Court a petition for writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2241 et seq. The sole issue presented ......
  • Rastrom v. Robbins
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — First Circuit
    • April 14, 1971
    ...own action in dismissing earlier appointed counsel. The court made no mention of counsel's lack of trial experience. State v. Rastrom, 261 A.2d 245 (Me.1970). The district court, applying the Fourth Circuit presumption based on limited preparation time, discussed infra, held that petitioner......
  • State v. Alley
    • United States
    • Maine Supreme Court
    • March 12, 1970 stand or fall on the legal issues incidental to the indictment. Prejudice to appellant is not presumed, it must be shown. State v. Rastrom, Me., 261 A.2d 245, (Opinion filed January 27, Sufficiency of Indictment, description of Narcotics Appellant emphasizes alleged infirmities in the us......
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