State v. Blakeney, 245 N.C.App. 452, 782 S.E.2d 88 (Feb. 16, 2016)

The trial court erred by requiring the defendant to proceed pro se. After the defendant was indicted but before the trial date, the defendant signed a waiver of the right to assigned counsel and hired his own lawyer. When the case came on for trial, defense counsel moved to withdraw, stating that the defendant had been rude to him and no longer desired his representation. The defendant agreed and indicated that he intended to hire a different, specifically named lawyer. The trial court allowed defense counsel to withdraw and informed the defendant that he had a right to fire his lawyer but that the trial would proceed that week, after the trial court disposed of other matters. The defendant then unsuccessfully sought a continuance. When the defendant’s case came on for trial two days later, the defendant informed the court that the lawyer he had intended to hire wouldn’t take his case. When the defendant raised questions about being required to proceed pro se, the court indicated that he had previously waived his right to court-appointed counsel. The trial began, with the defendant representing himself. The court held that the trial court’s actions violated the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The defendant never asked to proceed pro se; although he waived his right to court-appointed counsel, he never indicated that he intended to proceed to trial without the assistance of any counsel. Next, the court held that the defendant had not engaged in the type of severe misconduct that would justify forfeiture of the right to counsel. Among other things, the court noted that the defendant did not fire multiple attorneys or repeatedly delay the trial. The court concluded:

[D]efendant’s request for a continuance in order to hire a different attorney, even if motivated by a wish to postpone his trial, was nowhere close to the “serious misconduct” that has previously been held to constitute forfeiture of counsel. In reaching this decision, we find it very significant that defendant was not warned or informed that if he chose to discharge his counsel but was unable to hire another attorney, he would then be forced to proceed pro se. Nor was defendant warned of the consequences of such a decision. We need not decide, and express no opinion on, the issue of whether certain conduct by a defendant might justify an immediate forfeiture of counsel without any preliminary warning to the defendant. On the facts of this case, however, we hold that defendant was entitled, at a minimum, to be informed by the trial court that defendant’s failure to hire new counsel might result in defendant’s being required to represent himself, and to be advised of the consequences of self-representation.