IN: Underlying criminal case
Facts: Six police officers were indicted in a criminal case. One officer was indicted for pointing a firearm, operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated causing bodily injury, and criminal recklessness, among other crimes. The other five officers were indicted for obstruction of justice and/or official misconduct. All officers hired the same lawyer to represent them.
Lawyers must provide their clients with zealous representation. But when a lawyer represents multiple clients in the same matter, there may be potential conflicts of interest. The lawyer informed each officer of the potential conflicts that joint counsel may create. Then a magistrate informed each officer how a conflict may arise and how that conflict will affect their case. Then another lawyer met with each officer to make sure that each officer’s waiver was knowing and intelligent.
The prosecution argued that joint counsel would impair the ability of the prosecution to make a deal with one of the officers in exchange of a deal for a reduced or dropped charge, and that the lawyer wouldn’t be able to cross-examine any of the officers if they became a witness against the other officers. The court ordered each officer to hire their own attorney, despite the waiver.
Issue: Can a trial court disqualify a lawyer on the ground that joint counsel may create a conflict of interest?
Ruling: The right to counsel of choice is protected by the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. A trial court cannot disqualify a lawyer when there is no actual conflict of interest.
Lesson: The late Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter said
“Joint representation is a means of insuring against reciprocal recrimination. A common defense often gives strength against a common attack.”