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State v. O'Neil

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 1

April 3, 2017

THE STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent,
v.
JAMES LEE O'NEIL, JR., Appellant.

          Appelwick, J.

         An attorney is duty bound to withdraw when a conflict of interest arises. A trial court abuses its discretion when it refuses to allow withdrawal based on a demonstrated conflict of interest. When the conflict of interest exists because the opposing party has identified as a witness a person that counsel supervises, the trial court should apply the necessary witness test as if counsel had been sought as the witness. If the witness is necessary, counsel must be allowed to withdraw. We reverse and remand.

         FACTS

         James O'Neil was originally charged with felony harassment and attempted theft of a motor vehicle. He was assigned an attorney from the King County Department of Public Defense's (KCDPD) The Defender Association Division (TDAD), Anuradha Zangri, f/k/a Anuradha Luthra. O'Neil pleaded not guilty at arraignment. Later, the State amended the information to replace the original felony harassment charge with a charge of assault in the second degree. Unlike the original charge, this is a "strike" offense. If convicted, O'Neil faces life in prison, because this would be his third strike offense.

         Then, with a new attorney, Edwin Aralica of the KCDPD Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA) Division, O'Neil moved for rearraignment based on ineffective assistance of counsel. He argued that Zangri should have advised O'Neil to plead guilty based on the information available to Zangri regarding the two previous "strike" convictions.

         The State requested to interview an employee at KCDPD ACA Division, Haydee Vargas.[1] Vargas is one of KCDPD's experienced attorneys in handling arraignments. The State contends that interviewing Vargas will allow it to judge Zangri's performance and whether it fell below an objective standard.

         O'Neil objected to the State's request to interview Vargas because Aralica is Vargas's supervisor and they work in the same office. He argued that allowing the State to interview Vargas would create a conflict of interest for Aralica under RPC 3.7. Alternatively, O'Neil moved for Aralica's withdrawal should the State be permitted to interview Vargas.

         The trial court's order preemptively stated that "the State may interview [ACA] attorney Haydee Vargas .... [ACA] Attorney Aralica's motion to withdraw under RPC 3.7 is denied. This court does not find a conflict or ethical issue under RPC 3.7. Further, the court will not quash a subpoena for attorney Vargas's interview." O'Neil was granted a stay and discretionary review of this order.[2]

         DISCUSSION

         O'Neil makes two arguments on review.[3] First, O'Neil argues that Aralica's subordinate serving as a witness would give rise to a conflict requiring withdrawal. Second, O'Neil argues that the trial court erred in allowing the State to interview Vargas because of that conflict.

         I. Withdrawal For Conflict

         O'Neil argues that, because Aralica is Vargas's supervisor, he faces a personal interest conflict under RPC 1.7 that compromises his ability to be an effective advocate. RPC 1.7 states that a lawyer "shall not" represent a client if such a conflict exists. Therefore, he argues that the trial court erred in not granting Aralica's motion to withdraw.

         A. Standard of review

         Appellate courts review RPC conflict issues, and related motions to withdraw, de novo. See State v. Vicuna. 119 Wn.App. 26, 30-31, 79 P.3d 1 (2003). In Vicuna, the court reasoned that " '[t]he determination of whether a conflict exists precluding continued representation of a client is a question of law and is reviewed de novo.' " Id. (quoting State v. Ramos. 83 Wn.App. 622, 629, 922 P.2d 193 (1996)); State v. Hunsaker, 74 Wn.App. 38, 42, 873 P.2d 540 (1994) ("The determination of whether an ...


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