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U.S. v. BLACKLEDGE, NO. 12-7419

Decided: May 5, 2014

The Fourth Circuit held that the district court abused its discretion by denying the motions to withdraw as council, and, thus, vacated these denials and remanded the decision.

Respondent-Appellant was civilly committed as a sexually dangerous person under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (“Adam Walsh Act”).  Before a hearing on his commitment, Respondent successfully moved for the appointment of an expert forensic examiner, who confirmed that he was a sexually dangerous person.  In response, Respondent sought the appointment of a second expert and an extension of the deadline for discovery.  A magistrate judge denied both motions without prejudice.  Respondent’s counsel renewed the motions after the discovery deadline had passed, but the motions were again, denied.

Council for Respondent moved to withdraw from the case, reasoning that she could “no longer continue to ethically represent” Respondent.  Respondent’s counsel also added that she had arranged for new counsel to take over the hearings.  The magistrate judge, however, denied the motion.  Respondent’s counsel appealed the decision to the district court and filed a second motion to withdraw, noting that Respondent had filed a bar complaint against her.  Both motions were denied.  Respondent challenged the denial of the motions to extend and reopen the discovery period, motions to withdraw as counsel, and motions to appoint a second expert forensic examiner.

The Fourth Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s decision, concluding that it abused its discretion in denying the motions to withdraw as counsel.   The Court concluded that the district court forced Respondent to be represented by counsel, despite asserting multiple conflicts of interest.  In deciding whether a district court abused its discretion in denying a motion to withdraw or to substitute counsel, the Court considers three factors: (1) timeliness of the motion; (2) adequacy of the court’s inquiry; and (3) whether the attorney/client conflict was so great that it had resulted in a total lack of communication preventing an adequate defense.

Examining the first factor, the Court concluded that at least the second motion to withdraw was untimely.  The district court, however, failed to engage in an adequate inquiry regarding the Respondent’s dissatisfaction with his counsel.  The district court also failed to inquire into the factual basis of the conflicts asserted by Respondent’s counsel.  Moreover, the conflict between Respondent and his counsel was so substantial that “[their] relationship had deteriorated to a point that [they] [could not] discuss [Respondent’s] case.”  Thus, Respondent and his counsel were unable to adequately prepare for trial.  Accordingly, the Court held that the district court abused its discretion in requiring counsel to continue representing Respondent.

Where a court abuses its discretion, the ruling is subject to harmless error review.  The Court concluded that, in proceedings that could result in lifelong incarceration for a Respondent who had already served his full prison sentence, to force the Respondent into representation by counsel with whom Respondent could not communicate is not harmless.  Thus, the Court vacated the district court’s judgment denying the motions to withdraw and remanded for the district court to consider the motions after engaging in the appropriate inquiry regarding the extent of counsel’s conflict.

Full Opinion

Abigail Forrister