Sunday, April 18, 2010

Denial of right to self-representation at preliminary hearing is structural error

Lydia Krebs won in State v. Jones, No. 98,571 (Kan. April 15, 2010), reversing Wyandotte County convictions for aggravated kidnapping and rape. The KSC reversed the convictions because the district court denied Jones the right to self-represenation at the preliminary hearing in the case.

Prior to the preliminary hearing, Jones filed a pro se motion to to represent himself. At the preliminary hearing, Jones asked the court, "How can you deny me my rights to represent myself? This is my right under the Sixth Amendment." The court disagreed and denied Jones' motion because the court believed that Jones' lack of legal training made him incompetent to represent himself (even though Jones had been declared competent to stand trial). Thus, Jones was represented by his appointed counsel at the preliminary hearing.

Prior to trial, a different judge conducted a renewed hearing on Jones' motion to represent himself. After a lengthy colloquy, Jones decided to allow his court-appointed attorney to represent him in the rest of the proceedings.

On appeal, Jones argued that his Sixth Amendment right to self-representation was violated when the district court denied his motion to represent himself at the preliminary hearing. The KSC agreed, noting that the preliminary hearing was a critical stage in the proceedings, and that Jones' "right to represent himself was as vested at the hearing as it was at trial." The court also refused to engage in harmless error analysis. The court noted that, "[a] violation of a Sixth Amendment right to counsel is subject to structural error analysis." The court stated:

We accordingly decline to speculate what might have happened had the district court followed constitutionally mandated procedures in ruling on Jones' motion to represent himself at the preliminary hearing. We instead reverse the conviction and remand for a new proceeding, commencing with a preliminary hearing.
The decision in this case is a good reminder that some constitutional violations are not subject to harmless error analysis because they "affect[] the framework within which the trial proceeds." See Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 309-10, 113 L. Ed. 2d 302, 111 S. Ct. 1246 (1991).
[Update: this case won 2010 ADO case of the year!]


Randall Hodgkinson said...

This could also be important for other structural types of errors that could occur at other pretrial hearings: denial of counsel of choice, conflicted-counsel or complete denial of counsel, denial of public trial, etc.

Rabbi_Josiah said...

how about the Kansas Const. Bill of Rights LANGUAGE that reads in part:
§ 10. "In all prosecutions, the accused shall be allowed to appear and defend in person, or by counsel; this language in its very essence mandates that a criminal defendant must be allowed to represent himself, so why don't the appellate lawyers even consider this rather than the 6th Amend of the U.S. CONST.?