Wednesday, September 15, 2021

No Duty To Inquire Into Co-Defendant Conflict

An oral argument held in April before the Ohio Supreme Court raises interesting ethical questions.

The case involves a criminal appeal. 

One attorney represented two clients - husband and wife - who were charged in drug offenses after a search of their home.

They both pleaded guilty. The husband got jail time; the wife did not. 

The appeal agues that the failure of the trial judge to inquire into possible conflicts required reversal of the conviction.

The court today rejected the argument with a dissent

In State v. Williams, the Court ruled a Cuyahoga County trial court had no obligation to question whether the attorney jointly representing a husband and wife pleading guilty to drug-related charges had a conflict of interest. (Also 2020-0991.)

The opinion is linked here.

In this discretionary appeal, we consider whether a trial court has an affirmative duty to inquire into the possible conflict of interest created by an attorney’s dual or multiple representation1 of codefendants in a criminal case. Although making this inquiry is the better practice, we conclude that absent some factor which would alert the trial court about a possible conflict of interest created by such representation, the court has no affirmative duty to do so. We therefore affirm the judgment of the court of appeals.

Justice Brunner dissented

I believe that the majority opinion’s analysis is incomplete. I would address the right to counsel in Article I, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution and hold that it requires a trial court to make a prompt inquiry into whether a conflict exists any time two or more defendants facing charges arising out of the same matter are represented by the same attorney. Because the trial court in this matter did not conduct such an inquiry, I would remand this matter to the trial court for it to determine whether an actual conflict existed. Further, because the majority opinion indicates that inquiries into multiple representation should be addressed by a rule or a statute, I note several specific matters any such rule or statute must address to sufficiently protect the right to counsel

(Mike Frisch)

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