Can Trial Courts Deny Defendant’s Request for a New Criminal Defense Attorney on the Day of Trial?

Yes, if the court conducts a thorough analysis of the factors listed in United States v. Burton and those factors favor denial of Defendant’s request.

In March of this year the New Jersey Supreme Court dealt with this very issue in the context of a murder trial.  In State v. Luis Maisonet, the Defendant’s request for a new attorney was summarily denied by the trial court.  The record presented a dearth of facts regarding the Burton factors.  Nonetheless, the New Jersey Supreme Court found that it could glean sufficient information from the record to analyze the Burton factors in a fashion that militated against the Defendant.

Before conducting its analysis the Court explained that the major considerations any trial court should contemplate are those of the Defendant’s constitutional right to obtain counsel of his choice, the court’s right to control its own calendar and the public’s interest in the orderly administration of justice.

The factors the Court considered in ruling against the Defendant were:

1) whether or not the delay would be protracted;

2) whether or not an adjournment had been requested and granted;

3) the balanced convenience or inconvenience to the litigants and court – based partially   on when the request is made;

4) Defendant’s reasons for the request;

5) whether or not the defendant contributed to the circumstance giving cause for the motion — and whether or not defendant acted with due diligence;

6) whether or not other competent counsel was prepared to try the case;

7) identifiable prejudice to the Defendant;

8) the complexity of the case.

Ultimately, the Court did not reverse the Defendant’s conviction but it did provide guidance to trial courts going forward. Specifically, that trial judges should engage defendants in a colloquy tailored to the relevant Burton factors.  The Court noted that the inquiry does not need to be lengthy but it should provide enough of a record  in order for the court to engage in fair, just and logical analysis.

Interestingly, in one of her first dissents since being appointed to the State’s high court, Justice Pierre-Louis took issue with the underdevelopment of the lower court’s record.  In Justice Pierre-Louis’ view the inadequacy of the record amounted to structural error.

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