When a defendant makes an unequivocal, voluntary request for self-representation, the judge must determine whether defendant is competent to waive the right to counsel. The analysis is no more complicated than determining if defendant is able to understand the nature and objective of the proceedings and whether defendant understands the dangers and risks of self-representation. People v. Phillips (2006) 135 Cal.App.4th 422, 428; People v. Mickel (2016) 2 Cal.5th 181, 211-212; interpreting Faretta v. California (1975) 422 U.S. 806.
While many judges would prefer that defendant, before representing himself or herself (as is one’s right under the Sixth Amendment), first take a series of classes on criminal law and courtroom procedure, this is not required.
However, in certain circumstances, the denial of a Faretta motion is within the discretion of the trial court and reviewed on appeal for abuse of discretion, as when defendant is so disruptive or disrespectful as to preclude the exercise of self-representation (People v. Welch (1999) 20 Cal.4th 701, 735), when defendant suffers from a severe mental illness to the point where he or she cannot carry out the basic tasks needed to present the defense without the help of counsel (People v. Johnson (2012) 53 Cal.4th 519, 527-528), or when a request for self-representation is untimely (People v. Lynch (2010) 50 Cal.4th 693, 722, 728).
In determining if defendant is able to understand the nature and objective of the proceedings and whether defendant understands the dangers and risks of self-representation, the judge must discuss with the defendant the consequences of self-representation, i.e. that it is almost always unwise; the defendant will have to follow the same rules that govern attorneys; the prosecution will be represented by experienced, professional counsel; the judge may end the right of self-representation if defendant engages in disruptive conduct; the defendant will lose the right to appeal n the grounds of ineffective assistance of counsel; and defendant will not receive help or special treatment from the judge and does not have the right to “standby” co-counsel. People. v. Phillips, supra.
The judge, in determining whether defendant is competent to choose self-representation, “is not concerned with the wisdom of defendant’s decision to represent himself or herself, or how well he or she will do. The sole relevant question is whether defendant has the mental capacity to knowingly waive counsel while realizing the probable risks and consequences of self-representation.” People v. Nauton (1994) 29 Cal.App.4th 976, 979.
In a 2018 case in San Francisco County Superior Court, these principals were put to the test in the case of People v. Wakeen Best (2020 DJDAR 5227). In February of 2018, a man parked his car on the seventh floor of a parking garage in downtown San Francisco, leaving his Chihuahua dog in the car. When he returned to the car, he saw that his dog had been brutally killed.
A security guard at the garage reviewed video clips from the incident and police later arrested Ms. Best, charging her with three felonies: second-degree burglary of a vehicle (Penal Code § 459), killing, maiming or abusing an animal (Penal Code § 597(a)) and vandalism of a vehicle (Penal Code § 594(b). She was also charged with four misdemeanors.
At first, Ms. Best was represented by a public defender, who declared a doubt about defendant’s competency to stand trial. She apparently refused to face the judge in order to avoid having her image recorded by news media. Proceedings were suspended and Best was evaluated by psychiatrists who found her competent to stand trial.
Ms. Best then filled out and signed a Faretta waiver to represent herself. The judge inquired into Ms. Best’s education and awareness of the charges she faced. Since Ms. Best was in custody, the judge also advised her that she would face disadvantages by being in custody due to limited access to a telephone and legal research. Ms. Best indicated she understand all of this.
Some of her answers to questions showed a lack of understanding of legal concepts. For example, she did not know the difference between a jury trial and a speedy trial. She also did not know the difference between a specific intent crime and a general intent crime and the judge asked her which crimes that she was charged with required specific intent and defendant did not know. She also did not know what her defenses were that she would assert at trial.
The judge then denied her right to represent herself and she entered a plea of no contest to the four misdemeanors. She then had a jury trial, with the public defender representing her, and she was convicted of the three felonies with which she was charged. She was sentenced to three years and eight months in state prison.
She appealed the denial of her Faretta motion to the First Appellate District, which agreed with Best that the judge imposed standards far above and beyond those required. Therefore, the verdict was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.
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