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Name: People v. Espinoza
Case #: H039219
Court: CA Court of Appeal
District 6 DCA
Opinion Date: 01/28/2015
Subsequent History: Review granted 4/29/2015: S224929

Conviction of voluntarily absent pro se defendant is reversed where his trial proceeded without appointment of counsel or a knowing and voluntary waiver of fundamental trial rights. Appellant was charged with numerous offenses after an altercation with his roommate led to a search of his bedroom and the discovery of drugs and illegally possessed guns. During extensive pretrial proceedings appellant repeatedly moved for dismissal of counsel pursuant to Marsden and sought to represent himself. Midway through jury selection, the court granted appellant’s Faretta motion, but denied him a continuance. On the second day of trial, appellant was absent and could not be located. Without appointing counsel, the trial continued in appellant’s absence; he was convicted of six offenses. The court found priors true. When appellant reappeared, he was remanded into custody. On appeal he claimed the trial court erred in trying him in absentia without appointing counsel. Held: Reversed. The federal Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant certain trial rights, including the right to be present during critical stages of the proceedings, to the effective assistance of counsel, to confront witnesses, and to present a defense. The right to be present may be expressly or impliedly waived. A defendant may be involuntarily removed from the courtroom for disrupting the proceedings but cases have held it is error to proceed with trial in such circumstances without appointing counsel. In addition, a pro se defendant may voluntarily and knowingly waive his trial rights by absenting himself from trial if the waiver is knowing and voluntary. Here, the trial court erred in proceeding in appellant’s absence without appointing counsel because appellant did not absent himself on the record and the record did not reflect that he knew the trial would continue without him. The error is structural, requiring reversal.

Reversal of the judgment is also required because the trial court denied appellant’s request for a continuance after granting his Faretta motion. Although the decision whether to grant or deny a continuance is within the trial court’s discretion, the request may not be exercised so as to deprive a defendant of a reasonable opportunity to prepare. Here, the trial court repeatedly denied appellant’s Faretta motions until midway through jury selection, when the request was granted. It then denied appellant a one-day continuance. This was an abuse of discretion, warranting reversal.