Lawyer or Client: Who Gets the Final Say in the Chosen Defense in a California Criminal Case?

Who gets to decide on the defendant’s defense in a California criminal trial? The answer is, it is nuanced, and depends —some decisions are up to the lawyer, while others are left to the client. In a recent California case, the appeals court clarified whether the lawyer can admit that a defendant committed an act over the defendant’s objection.

In the case, the defendant was charged with the unlawful possession of weapons, and later with deliberately driving his car into a police officer while the officer was conducting a traffic stop. The officer was seriously injured, but survived. The defendant allegedly drove away, left the car, and went to a train station parking lot. He was arrested there, and later made incriminating statements to cellmates.

Before trial, the defendant told the court about his displeasure with his lawyer, saying that the lawyer wanted “to make him admit to something that [he] didn’t want to admit.” During the trial, the lawyer admitted that the defendant was driving the car, and argued that the defendant never had the premeditated intent to kill which was necessary to sustain a first-degree attempted murder conviction. The defendant objected to his lawyer’s admission that he was driving the car that injured the officer. At a later trial on the charges of weapons possession, the defendant objected when his lawyer admitted that he possessed certain firearms, and argued that he did not knowingly possess them because he did not understand the unlawful nature of the weapons.

The defendant appealed his convictions, arguing that his lawyer should not have taken a position that was in opposition to the defendant’s claim that he did not commit the acts. The State argued that the lawyer made a strategic decision and that it was in the decision-making ability of the lawyer.

The Sixth Amendments guarantees defendants the right to the assistance of legal counsel in their defense. In the 2018 case, McCoy v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment affords criminal defendants the right to tell their own version of events and define the fundamental objective of their defense at trial. In Mcoy, the defendant’s lawyer conceded that the defendant killed the victim, but argued that he was not guilty of first-degree murder because he lacked the requisite intent. The Court held that lawyers must allow their clients to decide the fundamental objective at trial and cannot concede the acts that constitute the basis of the crime over the client’s objection.

In this case, the lawyer ignored the defendant’s objective to maintain his innocence of the acts. The appeals court held that the disagreement was not a dispute over trial strategy. Rather, the lawyer overrode the defendant’s goal of maintaining his innocence of the acts. The appeals court found that although the lawyer’s choice was understandable, he conceded the acts that formed the basis of the crimes the defendant was facing, and that this was the client’s decision to make. Therefore, the court vacated the defendant’s convictions.

Have You Been Charged with a California Crime?

If you have been charged with a crime, talk to an experienced California criminal defense lawyer today. Attorney John W. Noonan has over 46 years of experience and can provide you with the vigorous defense you deserve. He represents clients facing serious misdemeanors and felonies, including California weapons crimes. Our office works to protect the rights of criminal defendants and is prepared to fight for and defend its clients. If you or a family member needs representation, call us at 925-479-0033 or contact us online at any time.

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