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State v. Curry

Court of Appeals of Washington, Division 3

May 16, 2017

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Respondent,
v.
JEROME CURRY JR, Appellant.

          Pennell, J.

         Criminal defendants enjoy competing rights to counsel and self-representation. As between these two rights, the default is the right to counsel. To overcome the presumption in favor of counsel, a defendant must first unequivocally request self-representation. This prerequisite is not satisfied if a defendant's desire to forfeit counsel is rooted in frustration with counsel's need for a continuance.

         During Jerome Curry's prosecution for felony drug offenses, he asked to represent himself. The court held a hearing at which Mr. Curry repeatedly stated he had no choice but to forfeit counsel because his attorney would not be ready to proceed without a continuance. The qualifications attached to Mr. Curry's request for self-representation constituted equivocation. Accordingly, Mr. Curry's request for self-representation was invalid, and the convictions sustained thereafter must be reversed.

          BACKGROUND

         Mr. Curry was charged with two counts of possession of a controlled substance. He was originally appointed counsel but filed several pretrial motions pro se.[1] Defense counsel ultimately filed a motion on Mr. Curry's behalf, requesting leave for Mr. Curry to proceed without counsel.

         The trial court addressed the motion to proceed without counsel at a pretrial hearing. At the hearing, the court engaged Mr. Curry in a lengthy discussion focused on whether Mr. Curry's waiver of counsel was knowing, voluntary, and intelligent. Throughout this discussion, Mr. Curry repeatedly stated he had "no choice" but to represent himself because he wanted to assert his right to a speedy trial. See Verbatim Report of Proceedings (VRP) (May 7, 2015) at 4, 12, 19.

         Mr. Curry explained he was frustrated because a change in personnel at the office of public defense meant his attorney would need a continuance. He stated:

[B]asically, I mean, if I've got to sit and wait until the end of June, ... I mean, send me to prison or release me. One of the two. I mean, I aint got time to sit here. I mean, I have obligations on the streets. I'm losing my home. And if I've got to lose my home, I might as well defend [myself].

Id. at 13. Mr. Curry stated that if his counsel could be ready by an earlier date, he would have "no problem" working with counsel. Id. at 14.

         At the close of the hearing, the court asked if Mr. Curry's decision to proceed without counsel was his "voluntary and steadfast decision." Id. at 18. Mr. Curry stated, "Well, it's not voluntary. . . . It's I have no choice in the matter." Id. at 18-19. The court then made the following inquiry:

THE COURT: Well, it's either your freewill choice of doing this, or somehow there's been some pressure put on you. And the only pressure I recall you saying is the time pressure; that is, that you believe you don't have a choice because you don't want an extension of the trial date, since you have other affairs that you believe you need to take care of. And you'd rather have an outcome quicker rather than later on. That's what I understand you to say. Is that accurate?
THE DEFENDANT: That's-that's accurate.

Id. at 19.

         After Mr. Curry confirmed the court's characterization of his position, the court granted Mr. Curry's request for self-representation. Approximately five weeks later, Mr. Curry represented himself ...


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