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7th Circuit: Indiana judge violated man's Sixth Amendment right to counsel

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An appellate court has ruled that a senior judge in the Northern District of Indiana violated a man’s Sixth Amendment rights by not allowing him to proceed to trial with the lawyer of his choosing.

That decision came from a three-judge panel on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, which included former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who was sitting by designation at the Circuit level.

The decision came Friday in the case of U.S. v. Sidney O. Sellers , No. 09-2516, a drug trafficking case from U.S. Judge Rudy Lozano who became a senior judge in the Northern District of Indiana after his retirement in 2007.

As part of a sting operation in early 2008, police and Drug Enforcement Administration officers staked out Sidney Sellers’ car and later pulled him over in Lake County for traffic violations. They found a fully loaded handgun registered in Illinois as well as several bags of crack cocaine. Police charged him with possession with intent to sell crack cocaine and possession of a firearm used in drug trafficking, and he received a 180-month sentence.

Sellers’ attorney representation became the pivotal issue in this case. The Illinois attorney he hired to represent him appointed a secondary counsel who ended up being the person representing Sellers through trial in May 2008. The lead counsel, David Weiner, was expected to begin shortly, but scheduling conflicts detailed in the record prevented him from stepping in, so the secondary attorney, Michael Oppenheimer from Illinois, remained on the case. He missed various pre-trial motion deadlines and ultimately filed a motion for a continuance three days before the trial was to begin because that date conflicted with other cases the other attorney was handling.

Senior Judge Lozano denied the motion and a request to suppress the evidence, explaining that the trial had been set for nearly two months and that Weiner, who was supposed to be lead counsel, hadn’t even filed an appearance at that time. The judge postponed the trial for a week, but that didn’t help Weiner who was still going to be handling another murder trial.

 Oppenheimer renewed his requests for a continuance on grounds he wasn’t prepared as lead counsel, and Sellers indicated he wanted to dismiss Oppenheimer as counsel because he’d wanted Weiner all along, but Senior Judge Lozano declined to postpone the trial. Oppenheimer and a new attorney represented Sellers at trial, again reiterating the need to postpone. Ultimately, Sellers was convicted and sentenced.

On appeal, Judge Michael Kanne sat with authoring Judge Ilana Diamond Rovner and former Justice O’Connor in deciding that the District judge’s refusal to grant Sellers a continuance deprived him of his Sixth Amendment right to choice of counsel and he deserved a new trial.

Analyzing the District judge’s reasons for denying the continuance, the appellate panel noted that the pre-trial motions had been late and within a few days before trial, that Sellers’ preferred counsel had not yet filed an appearance, and that the court itself had a practice of requiring any new counsel to “take the case as they find it.”

In a footnote, the panel pointed out that the court’s reliance on missed deadlines as a reason against new counsel or a continuance would, in effect, create a built-in appeal issue for ineffective assistance of counsel. “Under this reasoning, a defendant whose lawyer fails to comply with the court’s deadlines will be saddled with his ineffective counsel precisely because the lawyer is ineffective.”

The panel also pointed to Judge Lozano’s statements that he’d already accommodated the defendant by moving the trial back one week, that the government had timely turned over discovery, that the case wasn’t complex, that the judge had cancelled his attendance at the 7th Circuit judicial conference in Chicago, that the delay would affect other cases in need of trial dates, and that Judge Lozano was using this case to respond to the propensity of other Illinois counsel to request last-minute continuances.

All of these factors show that Judge Lozano’s decision-making on the continuance request was arbitrary and unreasonable,” the panel found.

“The record provides no evidence that the court balanced any of these circumstances against the needs of fairness and the demands of the calendar,” Judge Rovner wrote, citing the landmark Sixth Amendment precedent of U.S. v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U.S. 140, 144 (2006). “It seems instead that the court stood on unyielding principle – the principle that new counsel must ‘take the case as he finds it;’ the principle that continuances will not be granted for those who request them at the eleventh-hour and miss other deadlines; and the principle that delay of one case will unfairly backlog other cases.”

The 7th Circuit vacated the judgment and sentence and remanded for a new trial and pre-trial proceedings.
 

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  1. Im very happy for you, getting ready to go down that dirt road myself, and im praying for the same outcome, because it IS sometimes in the childs best interest to have visitation with grandparents. Thanks for sharing, needed to hear some positive posts for once.

  2. Been there 4 months with 1 paycheck what can i do

  3. our hoa has not communicated any thing that takes place in their "executive meetings" not executive session. They make decisions in these meetings, do not have an agenda, do not notify association memebers and do not keep general meetings minutes. They do not communicate info of any kind to the member, except annual meeting, nobody attends or votes because they think the board is self serving. They keep a deposit fee from club house rental for inspection after someone uses it, there is no inspection I know becausee I rented it, they did not disclose to members that board memebers would be keeping this money, I know it is only 10 dollars but still it is not their money, they hire from within the board for paid positions, no advertising and no request for bids from anyone else, I atteended last annual meeting, went into executive session to elect officers in that session the president brought up the motion to give the secretary a raise of course they all agreed they hired her in, then the minutes stated that a diffeerent board member motioned to give this raise. This board is very clickish and has done things anyway they pleased for over 5 years, what recourse to members have to make changes in the boards conduct

  4. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  5. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

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