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Court News Ohio

Court Had No Obligation to Determine if Couple’s Attorney Had Conflict of Interest

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, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a 6-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that while it might be a “better practice” for a trial court to question an attorney representing multiple clients in the same case to determine if there is a potential conflict of interest, it is not required. Writing for the Court majority, Justice Melody Stewart stated the trial court does not have a duty to inquire unless the trial court knows or has a reason to know a possible conflict exists, or a defendant objects to the multiple representation.

The Court also noted that Marshall Williams failed to explain how the joint representation of himself and his wife, Shawnte, adversely affected his lawyer’s performance. The decision affirmed an Eighth District Court of Appeals ruling that upheld the couple’s 2019 convictions.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Sharon L. Kennedy, Patrick F. Fischer, R. Patrick DeWine, and Michael P. Donnelly joined Justice Stewart’s opinion.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Jennifer Brunner maintained that the majority analyzed the case using the rights to a fair trial as protected by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. However, Williams claimed his rights also were protected by the Ohio Constitution. Justice Brunner stated that under the state constitution, the trial court was obligated to inquire about any conflicts of interest before accepting the plea agreement. Justice Brunner would have remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether an actual conflict existed.

Couples Sharing Attorney Reach Plea Deals
In December 2018, the Williamses were indicted on charges related to drug possession and trafficking. The couple hired a private attorney to represent them and entered plea agreements. In early 2019, Shawnte Williams pleaded guilty to a fifth-degree felony count of possession of criminal tools. Marshall Williams pleaded guilty to the greater charges of drug trafficking, a first-degree felony, and drug possession, a fourth-degree felony.

Marshall Williams was sentenced to nine years in prison, fined $10,000, and ordered to forfeit more than $14,000 in cash along with two vehicles, eight cell phones, and two digital scales. His wife was sentenced to five years of probation and fined $2,000. The court allowed the fine to be waived if she paid court costs and probation supervision fees within three years.

The two appeared together with their attorney for sentencing. When asked by the trial court if they were satisfied with their representation, they both responded, “Yes.”

Husband Challenges Conviction
Williams challenged his conviction to the Eighth District Court of Appeals, arguing, among other things, that his rights to due process and to counsel were violated under the Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and under Article I, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution. Williams maintained the trial court failed to assure that his lawyer explained to him the conflict of interest posed by joint representation before allowing the matter to proceed.

The Eighth District affirmed the trial court’s decision. Williams appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider his case.

Duty of Trial Court Analyzed
Justice Stewart explained that a criminal defendant’s fundamental right to have an attorney includes the right to have representation that is free from conflicts of interest. The majority opinion cited the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 Cuyler v. Sullivan decision, which stated that a defense attorney has a duty to provide “effective, conflict-free” assistance under the Sixth Amendment. That duty also exists under the Ohio Rules of Professional Conduct, the Court stated.

Based on the federal case, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that a trial court must proactively inquire in cases when a lawyer is representing multiple codefendants and the trial court knows or has reason to know the lawyer has a possible conflict of interest. The court also must inquire if a defendant objects to the multiple representation.

The majority opinion noted that when Williams raised a claim of conflict of interest on appeal, the appellate court was required to apply a two-step approach to address the issue. The appellate court first must determine whether the trial court had an obligation to inquire about a conflict of interest because one of the defendants objected or the court should have known about a possible conflict.

If the appellate court determined the trial court did not have a duty to inquire, then Williams had to show that an actual conflict of interest affected his attorney’s performance.

Conflict of Interest Not Apparent
The majority opinion stated that nothing in the record indicated a possible conflict of interest that the trial court should have known about. Williams was given multiple opportunities to address the court and did not say anything to put the court on notice of a possible conflict created by the joint representation, the Court stated. Williams told the trial judge he was satisfied with his representation and, when asked by the judge if there was anything about his case or the proceedings that he did not understand, he said no.

Because it found the trial court did not have a duty to inquire about a possible conflict, the Supreme Court also examined whether an actual conflict existed. That analysis required determining whether “Marshall’s interest diverged from his wife’s interests with respect to a material legal or factual issue,” the opinion stated.

At the sentencing, Williams’s wife apologized for her poor decisions and expressed an intent to focus on her health and family. Williams took responsibility for his actions and said he sold drugs to raise money to pay for surgery his wife needed. The Court determined the statements indicated the couple’s interests did not diverge, noting Williams did not blame his wife or indicate he was bearing responsibilities for crimes that belonged to her.

The fact that Williams’s wife was charged with fewer offenses or that she received a more favorable plea deal does not indicate an actual conflict of interest by their attorney, the opinion stated and Williams has not provided any alternative defense or strategy that could have been undertaken had he not agreed to joint representation.

The Court noted that Williams argued the process would be safer, and more transparent, if the trial court was obligated to inquire about potential conflicts of interest before allowing multiple representation, and he pointed out that other courts, including the federal court system, have rules mandating it. However, any change to Ohio’s system should come from a change in court rules or by legislation, the opinion concluded.

Trial Court Obligated to Inquire, Dissent Stated
In her dissent, Justice Brunner noted the majority limited its analysis of Williams’ claims to his argument that his federal constitutional rights were violated, but failed to consider that he also raised his state constitutional rights. The dissent noted the case law applying Article 1, Section 10 of the Ohio Constitution is “sparse,” but the Supreme Court has ruled the provision is “comparable to but independent” of the Sixth Amendment guarantees. She noted that in at least one case, the Court has ruled the rights to an attorney are greater under the Ohio Constitution than the federal constitution.

“In my view, Williams identified compelling reasons why the right of counsel under Article I, Section 10 provides greater protection than the Sixth Amendment in this case,” Justice Brunner wrote.

The dissent stated the Supreme Court has acknowledged that trial courts play an important role by inquiring whether defendants fully understand the rights they waive when pleading guilty, and maintained the trial court has a duty to ensure a defendant’s decision to accept multiple representation is “knowing and intelligent.”

2020-0658 and 2020-0991. State v. Williams, Slip Opinion No. 2021-Ohio-3152.

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