Trial court erred in failing to hold a Marsden hearing in response to defendant’s letter to the trial court requesting replacement attorney. Prior to entering a negotiated no contest plea, defendant sent two letters to the trial court expressing concern that the public defenders assigned to him had provided ineffective assistance, and requesting substitute counsel. Defendant’s request for a certificate of probable cause to challenge the validity of the plea was granted. On appeal, defendant argued his plea and conviction should be vacated because the trial court failed to hold a Marsden hearing. Held: Conditionally reversed. Under People v. Marsden (1970) 2 Cal.3d 118, a criminal defendant has the right to seek discharge and replacement of court-appointed counsel. Once a defendant clearly indicates to the trial court a request for the discharge and replacement of appointed counsel, the court must hold a hearing to allow the defendant to explain the basis for the request. No formal motion is required, and direct correspondence with the trial court is an acceptable manner for the defendant to make the request. Here, defendant’s two letters to the trial court triggered his right to a Marsden hearing. Although the first letter was subsequently rendered moot when a different public defender took over defendant’s case, the trial court erred in failing to hold a Marsden hearing in response to the second letter, in which defendant unequivocally requested that his case be “assigned to a state-appointed attorney.” The court distinguished several cases involving denial of Marsden motions as opposed to a failure to hold a Marsden hearing, and further determined that defendant did not forfeit his right to a Marsden hearing by way of his no contest plea (see People v. Sanchez (2011) 53 Cal.4th 80). Defendant also did not abandon his Marsden request by failing to press for a Marsden hearing in court (cf. People v. Jones (2012) 210 Cal.App.4th 355).
Conditional reversal of judgment is warranted based on insufficient record. The trial court’s failure to hold a Marsden hearing is subject to harmless error analysis. Because the record was largely limited to defendant’s letters, the court could not find the error harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. The court conditionally reversed the judgment and remanded for a Marsden hearing with instructions to reinstate the judgment if (1) the court finds after the Marsden hearing that defendant failed to demonstrate ineffective assistance or an irreconcilable conflict; or (2) the court grants defendant’s request for substitute appointed counsel, but either substitute counsel declines to file a motion to withdraw the plea or other appropriate motion, or the court denies any such motion.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/B266687.PDF