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MI Supreme Court makes it tougher for defendants to waive right to counsel

 Michigan Hall Of Justice Supreme Court Building In Lansing
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Michigan Hall Of Justice Supreme Court Building In Lansing

The Michigan Supreme Court has set a tougher standard for allowing criminal defendants to give up their right to legal counsel.

The court ruled with defendant Frank King, who fired his attorney and represented himself. After pleading no contest to a breaking and entering charge and being sentenced, King changed his mind and said he had been denied his right to counsel at critical points in the process, including pre-trial preparations, jury selection, opening statements and examination of key witnesses.

The Supreme Court held the right to counsel at all stages is foundational to the criminal justice system, even if the defendant doesn't ask for it. It’s part of “the narrow class of constitutional rights that are preserved absent a personal and informed waiver,” the majority held.

“Because defendant’s waiver of his right to counsel was invalid, he was deprived of counsel during critical stages of the proceedings, requiring automatic reversal,” read the opinion written by Justice Kyra Harris Bolden and joined by five other justices.

That was the right call, said Arthur Weiss, president of the Criminal Defense Attorneys of Michigan. He told Michigan Public Radio that defendants without legal training and experience don’t necessarily know what they’re giving up when they waive the right to counsel.

“The court is really wanting to make certain that a person wanting to represent themselves does so with their eyes open,” he said. “It’s ludicrous to assume that the average person is going to be able to perform medicine on themselves and it’s equally as ludicrous to assume that the average person is going to be able to competently and adequately represent themselves in a criminal court of law.”

The judge in King’s trial appointed an attorney to be available to assist King. That attorney did help craft the plea deal. But Weiss said the Supreme Court opinion makes clear that having a court-appointed attorney on standby ready to offer advice does not cure the constitutional problem.

The Supreme Court decision sends the case back to the Macomb County Circuit Court.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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