There is an old saying that a person who represents himself or herself in court has a fool for a client. The Maryland Rules provide procedures to protect individuals charged in criminal cases from foolishly terminating the services of an attorney in order to represent themselves. How this works was explored last week in an unreported opinion from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in the case of Ikiem Smith v. State of Maryland.
The Court’s opinion indicates that two police officers went to a home attempting to serve a warrant. They saw the defendant jump out a second story doorway to the home and attempt to run away. After being apprehended, the police searched him and found in his pocket what turned out to be crack cocaine. At a trial before a judge, Smith advised the Court that he wanted to terminate the services of his attorney and represent himself.
The Court asked why, and Smith claimed he did not think his lawyer was competent or was looking out for his best interest, and he had a better chance representing himself. The trial judge reminded him that he had already terminated his public defender and been allowed to retain this lawyer. The judge advised him of his right to counsel and the benefits of being represented by an attorney. He confirmed that Smith had received the charging document and understood the charges against him, and found that Smith had knowingly and voluntarily waived his right to an attorney. The judge granted Smith’s request for some time that day to review documents produced in the case and to visit the law library, after which Smith thanked the judge and said he was ready to proceed. Smith was convicted of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.
On appeal, one of the issues raised was whether the trial judge erred in not making a finding of whether Smith had a meritorious reason for wanting to discharge his lawyer. The appellate Court held that the trial judge had acted properly, making it clear that the judge did consider the reasons why Smith wanted to fire his lawyer, fully advised Smith of his rights and gave him the requested time to prepare, and that Smith thanked him and said he was ready for trial. Where the defendant, however unwisely, “timely and unequivocally stated that he did not want new counsel and wanted to represent himself,” his conviction was upheld.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.