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NJ: Criminal Defense Conflicts

State of New Jersey v. Dennis Copling, 326 N.J. Super. 417, 741 A.2d 624 (1999)

NJ: Underlying criminal defense

Student Contributor: Evan Michael Hess

Facts: Appellant was convicted of first degree conspiracy to commit murder, first degree murder, manslaughter, possession of a weapon for an unlawful purpose and third degree unlawful possession of a handgun. Represented by the Public Defender’s Office, the Appellant alleged, among other things, that his counsel of record was a personal friend of the chief investigator assigned to the case, and a witness for the State at trial, and that, therefore, possessed a conflict of interest in representation. The Defendant notified his defense counsel that he was concerned with counsel’s ability to perform a competent cross examination of the investigator. Counsel then notified the court of the defendant’s concerns, noting that he did not believe there to exist any conflict of interest. The Court denied the Defense motion to continue. The Court later learned that the Defendant knew of his defense counsel’s preexisting friendship with the chief investigator, but chose not to raise the issue until roughly one year later, shortly before trial.

Issue: Does an attorney’s conflict of interest stemming from a pre-existing friendship, or the appearance of impropriety render a criminal trial fundamentally unfair?

Ruling: Relying on the Rules of Professional Conduct in New Jersey, Section 1.7(b), the Court held:

1) Legal counsel in criminal matters must have undivided loyalty to their clients and have representation that is "untrammeled and unimpaired" by conflicting interests. See State v. Bellucci, 81 N.J. 531, 538 (1980);
2) Friendship alone, without more, should not preclude effective representation;

Lesson: While the appearance of impropriety may exist, a conflict of interest does not exist unless counsel is prevented from serving as a "vigorous partisan" of the client’s interest. Furthermore, in accordance with the Rules of Professional Conduct, legal counsel cannot represent a client if the attorney is limited by his/her responsibilities to a third person or limited by the attorney’s own interests.

Note: New Jersey’s Rules of Professional Conduct  no longer recognizes the appearance of  impropriety as prohibited conduct for lawyers.  

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Posted in: Conflicts of Interest, Criminal Law, New Jersey