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Ronquillo v. State

Supreme Court of Colorado

October 16, 2017

Jesus Manuel Ronquillo, Petitioner
The People of the State of Colorado. Respondent

         Certiorari to the Colorado Court of Appeals Court of Appeals Case No. 11CA740

          Attorneys for Petitioner: Douglas K. Wilson, Public Defender Michael C. Mattis, Deputy Public Defender Denver, Colorado

          Attorneys for Respondent: Cynthia H. Coffman, Attorney General Ethan E. Zweig, Assistant Attorney General Denver, Colorado


          HOOD, JUSTICE

         ¶1 Several days before a long-pending trial date, Jesus Ronquillo decided he'd had enough of the lawyer he'd hired to defend him. He told the court that he was "tired of throwing away [his] money, " and "thought it better to get a public defender." Counsel asked to withdraw, noting that he had been fired because Ronquillo thought he was "in cahoots" with the prosecutor and wasn't doing a good job and because Ronquillo could no longer afford to pay for his services. He argued that he and Ronquillo had suffered a complete breakdown in communication.

         ¶2 The trial court denied counsel's motion to withdraw, reasoning that it was too late in the game for counsel to exit the case because of non-payment, particularly in a case involving out-of-state witnesses. Therefore, the judge told Ronquillo he could go to trial as scheduled with retained counsel, or he could represent himself. Ronquillo chose option number one, and a jury convicted him as charged.

         ¶3 Ronquillo appealed. A division of the court of appeals concluded that the trial court erred by focusing on the non-payment issue and by not addressing the alleged breakdown in communication. To obtain substitute counsel in this retained-to-appointed scenario, it held, the defendant must show good cause. So, the division remanded the case to the trial court to expressly address that issue.

         ¶4 The question for us is whether on facts such as these a defendant must show good cause to fire retained counsel. Our answer is no. We hold that the Sixth Amendment right to hire counsel of choice includes the right to fire that counsel without showing good cause, even when a defendant seeks court-appointed counsel as a replacement.

         ¶5 But while a defendant may fire retained counsel for any reason, he may be limited in his options going forward in ways he does not appreciate. Thus, before granting defendant's request to release retained counsel, a trial court must ensure that the defendant understands the consequences of doing so. We outline the discussion that trial courts should have with defendants who wish to fire retained counsel.

         ¶6 Because the court of appeals erred by requiring Ronquillo to show good cause, we reverse its judgment and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Facts and Procedural History

         ¶7 Jesus Manuel Ronquillo retained private defense counsel to defend him against charges that Ronquillo had sexually assaulted his son. Ronquillo remained in custody throughout the proceedings. On August 16, 2010, the court set trial for Tuesday, January 11, 2011. On Friday, January 7, 2011, defense counsel filed a motion to withdraw, and the court held a hearing on the motion.

         ¶8 Defense counsel explained that Ronquillo sought to terminate representation because Ronquillo (1) believed defense counsel was "in cahoots" with the prosecution, (2) felt defense counsel was not representing him adequately, and (3) was out of money to pay defense counsel. Addressing the court directly, Ronquillo confirmed those were the reasons motivating him. He also said he thought a public defender would do a better job. Defense counsel added that Ronquillo's dissatisfaction had led to a complete breakdown of attorney-client communication.

         ¶9 The prosecutor objected to withdrawal, explaining that he was "ready to go forward" and the victim was "interested" in doing so. He also pointed out that airfare had already been purchased for multiple out-of-state witnesses, although he volunteered that the tickets were refundable. He explained, therefore, "[I]f this is continued there won't be any prejudice or lost money . . . ."

         ¶10 The district court denied the motion. It reasoned that non-payment did not constitute a sufficient reason to withdraw so close to trial, particularly when there were out-of-state witnesses. It ruled that Ronquillo could choose between (1) keeping retained counsel, whom the trial court would not allow to withdraw for lack of funds, or (2) representing himself. Ronquillo chose to keep retained counsel. He went to trial and was convicted of aggravated incest and sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust.

         ¶11 On appeal, Ronquillo argued that he should have been able to discharge retained counsel at will, even when seeking court-appointed counsel. The court of appeals division recognized that defendants may discharge retained counsel, but noted that indigent defendants must show good cause before discharging appointed counsel. Because of the overlapping analytical frameworks, it held that the trial court should have determined whether Ronquillo had good cause to discharge retained counsel and obtain court-appointed counsel. Therefore, it remanded the case with directions that the trial court make the good-cause determination.

         ¶12 Ronquillo petitioned this court for review, and we granted certiorari.[1]

         II. Standard of Review

         ¶13 We apply de novo review here. Although we review a trial court's rulings on withdrawal and appointment of counsel for an abuse of discretion, People ex rel. M.M., 726 P.2d 1108, 1121 (Colo. 1986); Nikander v. Dist. Court, 711 P.2d 1260, 1262 (Colo. 1986); see also Crim. P. 44(c) (withdrawal of a lawyer in a criminal case is generally a matter within the sound discretion of the court), we review questions of law-like which standard governs a motion to withdraw-de novo, see Lucero v. People, 2012 CO 7, ¶ 19, 272 P.3d 1063, 1065. Because the issue before us is whether the division applied the correct legal standard, we conduct de novo review.

         III. Analysis

         ¶14 We address the question before us in several steps. First, we examine a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice. Second, we consider a lopsided split of national authority regarding whether a defendant may discharge retained counsel without showing good cause, even if the defendant seeks to replace retained counsel with court-appointed counsel. We join the overwhelming majority of courts that have concluded that no good-cause showing is necessary. Third, we discuss how a trial court should ensure that a defendant understands and accepts the consequences of firing retained counsel before being allowed to do so. Finally, we apply these legal determinations to the facts before us, and we conclude that remand is necessary for the trial court to make findings under the framework we clarify today.

         A. The Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel of Choice

         ¶15 The Sixth Amendment provides that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." U.S. Const. amend. VI; see also Colo. Const. art. 2, § 16. The Sixth Amendment right to counsel applies to all state criminal prosecutions in which a defendant faces the prospect of incarceration. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 342 (1963); Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367, 373-74 (1979).

         ¶16 A criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment right to "Assistance of Counsel" includes the right to hire counsel of choice. United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140, 144 (2006); People v. Brown, 2014 CO 25, ¶ 16, 322 P.3d 214, 218-19. The right to hire counsel of choice "is the right to a particular lawyer regardless of comparative effectiveness, " as opposed to the right to effective counsel, which "imposes a baseline ...

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