New Mexico Supreme Court: Constitutional Error to Accept Plea Without Assistance of Counsel
The Supreme Court of New Mexico held that a magistrate court committed constitutional error by accepting a defendant’s plea of no contest without the assistance of counsel. The Court said the “case serves as a reminder that fundamentals constitutional rights cannot be jettisoned for the sake of judicial efficiency.”
The Court’s opinion was issued in a certiorari proceeding brought by Antonio Cruz. He was arraigned in magistrate court on June 30, 2017, on a misdemeanor charge of criminal damage to property of a household member.
At the arraignment, Cruz did not have counsel and asked for a public defender. The magistrate conditionally entered an order appointing the Law Offices of the Public Defender (“LOPD”) to represent Cruz. In the same proceeding, the magistrate adjudicated Cruz guilty based on his “No Contest” plea.
More than a month later, an LOPD attorney entered a notice of appearance and filed a motion to withdraw Cruz’s plea because it was obtained without the assistance of counsel, he had not completed high school, and he suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder. The magistrate denied the motion and sentenced Cruz to 364 days incarceration with credit for two days served. The remaining 362 days were suspended for placement on 180 days supervised probation and 180 unsupervised probation. A $1,000 fine was imposed with $800 suspended, and Cruz was charged $123 in fees for a total of $323.
Cruz then timely appealed to the district court. No action occurred in the case for eight months. The district court dismissed the case because Cruz failed to bring the case to trial within six months. An appeal to the Court of Appeals ensued. That court affirmed. Cruz then filed a certiorari petition with the New Mexico Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court began its analysis by point out that the right to counsel attaches at least as early as arraignment or whenever “judicial proceedings have been initiated against [a defendant].” Brewer v. Williams, 430 U.S. 387, 398 (1977). “[B]y the time a defendant is brought before a judicial officer, is informed of a formally lodged accusation, and has restrictions imposed on his liberty in aid of the prosecution, the State’s relationship with the defendant has become solidly adversarial.” Rothgery v. Gillespie Cnty., 554 U.S. 191, 202 (2008). At that point, the Sixth Amendment interposes “the protective shield of a lawyer between [the accused] and the awesome power of the State.” Brewer. Additionally, the right to counsel attaches regardless of the seriousness of the offense charged; as long as the offense “actually leads to imprisonment even for a brief period,” the defendant must be provided with counsel. Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25 (1972).
While a defendant may waive the right to counsel, there is a strong presumption against waiver. Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458 (1039). The Court found Cruz did not waive his right to counsel. In fact, he did the opposite and requested the appointment of counsel. “This was not the plea of a self-represented party, but of a defendant who was deprived of counsel,” the Court determined.
The Court noted that conducting an arraignment without “counsel does not, in and of itself, constitute reversible error.” Error, however, occurred in this case because Cruz was deprived of counsel at an arraignment proceeding where his guilt was adjudicated. Citing United States v. Cronic, 466 U.S. 648 (1984), the Court said “[r]eversal is automatic if a defendant is completely deprived of counsel when guilt is determined; the defendant need not demonstrate prejudice.”
The Court explained that depriving a defendant of counsel affects more than one constitutional right. In addition to violating the Sixth Amendment, it also violates the due process clause of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.
“At every level of our courts, the Constitution must stand as an immovable bulwark to secure the rights of individuals in every case,” wrote the Court. “Central to our criminal justice system is the right to counsel, which in turn ensures the protection of other rights.”
Cruz’s conviction resulting from the no-contest plea and the judgment and sentence imposed were invalid, the Court ruled. It also ruled the district court’s dismissal of Cruz’s appeal was error. It noted that there is no rule requiring a case be brought to trial within six months.
It was also error to shift the burden to Cruz to bring himself to trial, stated the Court. “We clarify that while a defendant has the burden to file a de novo appeal according to the applicable rules of procedure, the defendant does not have the burden to move the case forward thereafter,” the Court instructed. “After an appeal is properly filed, the defendant retains the right to speedy trial and the state retains the burden to bring the case to trial de novo in a timely manner.”
Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment and sentence of the magistrate court. See: State v. Cruz, 486 P.3d 1 (N.M. 2021).
As a digital subscriber to Criminal Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login
Related legal case
State v. Cruz
|Cite||486 P.3d 1 (N.M. 2021)|
|Level||State Supreme Court|