State v. Lindsey, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Apr. 21, 2020)

In March 2018 the defendant was charged with multiple crimes after breaking into a gas station. In August 2018, the trial court first addressed the defendant’s right to counsel. The defendant said that he did not want a lawyer, but then, when asked by the judge, “You’re not just waiving court appointed counsel, you’re waiving all counsel; is that correct?,” the defendant replied that he was “simply waiving court appointed counsel.” The defendant signed a waiver of counsel form, checking only box one, waiving his right to assigned counsel. The trial judge appointed standby counsel. The defendant argued several preliminary motions without the assistance of counsel between August 2018 and when his case came on for trial in March 2019. At that point, a different judge presiding over the trial noticed that the defendant had waived court-appointed counsel but not all counsel. After a full colloquy with the judge, the defendant checked box 2 on a new form, waiving his right to all assistance of counsel. The defendant was convicted and sentenced.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the trial court erred by failing to appoint counsel or secure a valid waiver of counsel until more than a year after the defendant’s initial arrest. Over a dissent, the Court of Appeals agreed with him and ordered a new trial. The majority first established that the issue was properly preserved for appellate review, noting that prejudicial violations of a statutory mandate (here G.S. 15A-1242) are preserved for appeal notwithstanding the defendant’s failure to object at trial, and the Supreme Court of North Carolina has recently reviewed unobjected-to Sixth Amendment denial of counsel claims. The court then concluded that the trial court erred by allowing the defendant to proceed unrepresented without first obtaining a proper waiver of all counsel after a proper inquiry under G.S. 15A-1242. The August 2018 colloquy was flawed to the extent that the trial court did not ask whether the defendant understood and appreciated the consequences of his decision to proceed without representation, and in any event resulted only in a waiver of assigned counsel. The State failed to establish that the defendant’s self-representation through the pretrial period from August 2018 until the proper waiver colloquy in March 2019 was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt—which the court noted would have been difficult even if the State had tried, given the many issues addressed during the uncounseled period (possible plea negotiations, discovery, and evidentiary issues).

A dissenting judge would have concluded that the defendant failed to preserve the issue for appellate review.