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United States v. United States

decided: October 24, 1974.



Van Dusen, Hunter and Weis, Circuit Judges.

Author: Van Dusen


VAN DUSEN, Circuit Judge.

This is an appeal from the district court's denial of a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255*fn1 to vacate or set aside movant-appellant's sentence. Since the facts are set forth in the district court opinion, 369 F. Supp. 232, 233-34 (E.D. Pa. 1973), only the facts most pertinent to the issues now before the court are recited here.

Movant, Jose Juan Soto, was indicted for aiding and abetting a sale of heroin in violation of 26 U.S.C. §§ 4704, 4705*fn2 and 18 U.S.C. § 2.*fn3 When his case was called for trial at 2:30 P.M. on June 1, 1972, Soto's appointed attorneys*fn4 asked leave to withdraw as counsel on grounds that movant had "become displeased with [their] representation."*fn5 (N.T. 2). In presenting their motion to the court, counsel identified two bases for Soto's dissatisfaction. First, he had "expressed . . . the feeling that they were not raising every constitutional claim which [they] might perhaps raise on his behalf."*fn6 (N.T. 2-3). Second, Soto had expressed resentment of, and resistance to, counsel's requirement that movant telephone them once a day to determine whether his case had been called for trial.*fn7 After counsel had argued their motion, the court engaged in a colloquy with Soto which revealed that he had made no arrangements to retain another attorney. 369 F. Supp. at 234, N.T. 3-9. The court thereupon denied counsel's motion to withdraw, stating that a substitution of attorneys would be allowed in the event that Soto did obtain other counsel. Soto participated freely in the colloquy, volunteering that it was "impossible" for him to leave his truck and be in court on a moment's notice. 369 F. Supp. at 239 n.13. He offered no grounds for dissatisfaction other than those already advanced by counsel, though the court appeared willing to hear any and all reasons for such dissatisfaction. Having ruled on the motion to withdraw, the court immediately proceeded to allow Soto's waiver of jury trial, "partly . . . because [Soto] indicated that [he] want[ed] to get this over with" and was inconvenienced by having the matter continued longer. Upon Soto's affirmative response to the court's inquiry whether "you want me to start right now; is that correct," the case proceeded to trial. (N.T. 12). Testimony was heard until 7:30 P.M. on June 1, 1972, and resumed at 9:30 A.M. on June 2, 1972, to accommodate the trial court's calendar.*fn8 A verdict of guilty was announced by the court on June 2, 1972, and movant's sentence was affirmed on appeal, sub nom. United States v. Santiago, 474 F.2d 1337 (3d Cir. 1972), cert. denied, Soto v. United States, 411 U.S. 907, 36 L. Ed. 2d 197, 93 S. Ct. 1535 (1973). Soto then filed this motion under § 2255.

The crux of the § 2255 motion is that the trial court, by failing to advise appellant of his right to proceed pro se, deprived him of that right, thereby committing a " per se reversible error." Ancillary to this claim is appellant's contention that the trial court abused its discretion in denying appointed counsel leave to withdraw without either ascertaining from appellant the reasons for his dissatisfaction with counsel or granting, sua sponte, a continuance so that appellant could obtain substitute counsel or prepare his own defense. We reject all these contentions and affirm the district court order of November 15, 1973.


At the outset, we must determine whether jurisdiction lies under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to adjudicate appellant's claim that he was denied the right to proceed pro se. In the recent case of Davis v. United States, 417 U.S. 333, 94 S. Ct. 2298, 41 L. Ed. 2d 109, 42 U.S.L.W. 4857 (1974), the Supreme Court held that a § 2255 proceeding was not limited to the resolution of constitutional claims, but was the proper vehicle for a prisoner to assert that his confinement was invalid due to a change in the law of the circuit. The Court noted that "the grounds for relief under Section 2255 are equivalent to those encompassed by Section 2254, the general federal habeas corpus statute, under which relief is available on the ground that 'a person is in custody in . . . violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.' (Emphasis added)." 42 U.S.L.W. at 4860, citing United States v. Hayman, 342 U.S. at 219 (1952). In sum, the remedy of § 2255 "is intended to be as broad as habeas corpus." 42 U.S.L.W. at 4860. The Government's position, that "the petitioner's claim [was] not 'of constitutional dimension' and thus [was] not cognizable in a Section 2255 collateral proceeding," id. 42 U.S.L.W. at 4859, was emphatically rejected as inconsistent with the clear words of the statute.*fn9 Id. 42 U.S.L.W. at 4860.

Although the courts of appeals disagree over whether the right to represent oneself is constitutionally guaranteed, "there is no dispute that it is a fundamental right." 369 F. Supp. at 235. The right, embodied in 28 U.S.C. § 1654,*fn10 was set forth in the Judiciary Act of 1789 and has been consistently honored by the federal courts.*fn11 Thus, even though we decide that there is no constitutional requirement that an accused be permitted to proceed pro se, see Part II, infra, the statutory right is sufficient to afford jurisdiction under the holding of Davis.


After careful consideration, we reject movant's contention that the Constitution guarantees a defendant the right to proceed pro se. See United States v. Dougherty, 154 U.S. App. D.C. 76, 473 F.2d 1113, 1121 (1972); Brown v. United States, 105 U.S. App. D.C. 77, 264 F.2d 363, 365 n.2 (1959).*fn12

The Sixth Amendment provides that the accused in all criminal prosecutions "shall enjoy the right . . . to have the assistance of Counsel for his defence." In interpreting this language, the Supreme Court has repeatedly stressed that it is "an obvious truth" that a fair trial cannot be assured unless a defendant has counsel. Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335, 344, 9 L. Ed. 2d 799, 83 S. Ct. 792 (1963). See Argersinger v. Hamlin, 407 U.S. 25, 36-37, 32 L. Ed. 2d 530, 92 S. Ct. 2006 (1972); In Re Gault, 387 U.S. 1, 18 L. Ed. 2d 527, 87 S. Ct. 1428 (1967); Johnson v. Zerbst, 304 U.S. 458, 462-63, 82 L. Ed. 1461, 58 S. Ct. 1019 (1938); Powell v. Alabama, 287 U.S. 45, 68-69, 77 L. Ed. 158, 53 S. Ct. 55 (1932). The central importance of competent legal counsel to the conduct of a fair trial has led the Court to require assistance of counsel at all "critical stages" in the trial process. See, e.g., Coleman v. Alabama, 399 U.S. 1, 26 L. Ed. 2d 387, 90 S. Ct. 1999 (1970); Mempa v. Rhay, 389 U.S. 128, 19 L. Ed. 2d 336, 88 S. Ct. 254 (1967); Townsend v. Burke, 334 U.S. 736, 92 L. Ed. 1690, 68 S. Ct. 1252 (1948).

By contrast, the right to pro se representation is only tangentially related to procuring a fair trial. The primary basis of the right "derives from the belief that respect for human dignity is best served by respect for individual freedom of choice." 369 F. Supp. at 235-36. See also United States v. Dougherty, 154 U.S. App. D.C. 76, 473 F.2d 1113, 1128 (1972).*fn13 Pro se representation may at times serve the ideal of a fair trial better than representation by an attorney. Also, the individual's freedom of choice and stake in the conduct of his own trial should, on occasion, prevail over society's generalized interest in the trial process. See ...

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