The People &c.,
2004 NY Int. 82
This appeal calls upon us to consider when a defendant is entitled to the substitution of assigned counsel.
Following an undercover police investigation in October
1996, defendant was charged with two counts of criminal sale of a
A month later, still with the same counsel who had represented him in the 14 months since arraignment, defendant moved to suppress identification testimony. At the February 23, 1998 Wade hearing, the court (Kahn, J.) asked why defendant was handcuffed. Defense counsel stated that defendant had verbally abused counsel and threatened to "cut" his face. Defendant denied making any threatening comments or gestures, but said that he had no confidence in counsel because he was urging defendant to accept a plea offer of four to eight years. Defendant then asked the court to assign a new attorney.
Justice Kahn rejected defendant's request and observed
that defense counsel was simply discharging his duty in advising
defendant to accept the People's plea offer. In response to
defendant's claims that he could not trust his attorney and that
counsel "never does anything in my behalf, never ever," the court
replied, "If you were telling me anything specific about * * *
[counsel's] failure to do his job here, I would not hesitate to
replace him, but I'm not hearing anything specific from you about
how he's failed to do his duty, in fact, just to the contrary."
The next day, February 24, jury selection began before a different judge (Altman, J.). Although the minutes of proceedings that day and the next were lost, a November 1, 2001 reconstruction hearing before Justice Altman indicates that the court conducted a colloquy with the parties to discuss security arrangements for defendant and whether defense counsel believed he could continue representing defendant. Defense counsel informed the court that his ability to represent defendant had not been impaired by his client's threatening conduct. In addition, the court discussed the possibility of seating a uniformed officer between defendant and his counsel at trial, but concluded that it would be less prejudicial for defense counsel to hire a plainclothes investigator to sit between them.
A jury found defendant guilty as charged, and the court
sentenced him to concurrent terms of 12 years to life. On appeal
to the Appellate Division, defendant argued that Supreme Court's
refusal to furnish him with another lawyer effectively denied him
his right to counsel. The Appellate Division affirmed ( see 302
AD2d 256), holding that Justice Kahn properly exercised her
discretion in denying defendant's request for new counsel. We
The Federal and State Constitutions guarantee criminal defendants the right to effective representation by counsel ( see US Const 6th Amend; NY Const Art 1, § 6; see also People v Stultz, __ NY3d __ ; People v Baldi, , 54 NY2d 137 1981]). This right does not begin and end with the assignment of counsel. As we recognized in People v Medina (, 44 NY2d 199, 207 1978]), trial courts have an ongoing duty to "carefully evaluate serious complaints about counsel." Although defendants have no choice in selecting their assigned counsel, trial courts should substitute counsel when a defendant can demonstrate "good cause" ( id.).
In determining whether good cause exists, a trial court
must consider the timing of the defendant's request, its effect
on the progress of the case and whether present counsel will
likely provide the defendant with meaningful assistance. Good
cause determinations are necessarily case-specific and therefore
fall within the discretion of the trial court. In Medina,
however, we articulated two clear-cut instances in which a trial
court's failure to find good cause for substitution would amount
to an abuse of discretion: first, when an attorney is assigned
We revisited Medina's good cause standard in People v Sides (75 2 822 ). There, the attorney stated that there had been a total breakdown of communication and trust with the defendant. Although this Court reversed the defendant's conviction, we did not predicate our holding on that ground. Instead, we concluded that the trial court had committed an abuse of discretion by conducting only a perfunctory inquiry into defendant's serious request for the assignment of new counsel. In the face of a potentially irreconcilable conflict between the defendant and counsel, the trial court in Sides failed to make even a minimal inquiry or ask anything about the nature of the disagreement or whether it could be resolved.
Evaluated under the standard enunciated in Medina and
Sides, Supreme Court's denial of defendant's motion to substitute
Further, looking past defendant's stated objections, there is nothing in the record indicating that defense counsel had a genuine conflict of interest with defendant or that he was in any way deficient in representing him. To the extent defendant's relationship with counsel soured with the approach of trial, the fault lies wholly with defendant. Defendant and counsel worked together for over a year before defendant, perhaps for reasons of delay or differences over strategy, manufactured a conflict with counsel on the very eve of trial. As we indicated in Medina, tensions arising out of differences over strategy do not compel the trial court to delay the proceedings and bring in a new lawyer. That defendant backed his objections to counsel's advice with the threat of violence does not alter our analysis. Substitution of counsel is an instrument designed to remedy meaningful impairments to effective representation, not to reward truculence with delay. Defendant's other contentions are without merit.
Accordingly, the order of the Appellate Division should be affirmed.
1 See People v Brabson (, 9 NY2d 173  [holding that "as long as assigned counsel" have "ability and integrity, the discretion and responsibility for their selection rest with the court, to be exercised free of outside interference"]).