Maryland High Court Considers Constitutional Right To Fire Legal Counsel

Earlier this month, this blog discussed new legislation that had been introduced in the Maryland General Assembly designed to encourage defendants charged with criminal offenses to waive their constitutional right to be represented by legal counsel at initial bail hearings. In a similar vein, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a ruling late last month, examining the circumstances under which a criminal defendant is entitled to fire his retained counsel in favor of another attorney and a trial court’s obligation to the defendant under such circumstances.

Gambrill v. State

In Gambrill v. State, CA No. 42, the defendant, Michael Gambrill, was charged with misuse of telephone facilities and harassment, both misdemeanors carrying minor penalties. Gambrill, however, was also on probation, with a 14-year prison sentence suspended. On the day of trial for the misdemeanor offenses, Gambrill’s public defender moved the trial court to postpone the trial so that Gambrill could retain private counsel to represent him. The trial court denied the request, and, following a jury trial, Gambrill was convicted on both charges.

On appeal, Gambrill argued that the court denied his request to obtain private counsel without complying with the requirements of Rule 4-215(e), which requires a court to allow a defendant wishing to discharge his counsel to explain the reasons for the request and, if necessary, continue the action to allow the defendant to retain new counsel. In response, the State contended that Gambrill’s request was only to postpone the trial, and therefore did not implicate Rule 4-215(e).

Opinion of the Court of Appeals

In its opinion, the Court of Appeals began by recognizing that criminal defendants have a right to counsel conferred by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Gideon v. Wainwright. Discussing the relationship between the right to counsel and Rule 4-215(e), the Court opined that an accused has both a constitutional right to have the effective assistance of counsel and to reject that assistance and defend himself, stating that Maryland Rule 4-215 was adopted to implement those constitutional guarantees.

Most importantly, the Court acknowledged how a defendant’s explanation of his reasons for discharging counsel played a “pivotal role” in giving “practical effect” to the defendant’s constitutional choices regarding his Sixth Amendment rights. In light of the importance of these choices, the Court held that a request to discharge counsel is “any statement from which a court could conclude reasonably that the defendant may be inclined to discharge counsel.” In the event such a request is made, the trial court must engaged in a discussion with the defendant under Rule 4-215(e) to ascertain the reasons for asking for the discharge.

Ultimately, the Court held that, although Gambrill’s request to hire a new attorney may not have been clear, such “inherent ambiguity” did not relieve the judge of his obligation to comply with Rule 4-215(e). The Court concluded that, “To hold otherwise would be to thwart the very purpose of Rule 4-215(e), which is to give practical effect to Gambrill’s constitutional options.”

The criminal defense attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC have extensive experience defending the Constitutional rights of individuals that have been charged with a crime. If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime in Maryland, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today.