Trial court abused its discretion by denying defendant’s request to discharge his retained counsel as untimely, which denied his right to counsel of choice and automatically requires reversal. Lopez was charged with several sex offenses against two minors and was represented by retained counsel. At a trial readiness conference, Lopez requested that he be allowed to discharge his retained attorney and either retain new counsel or have one appointed for him. The trial court denied the motion as untimely, because trial was ready to start either that same day or the next judicial day. Lopez then pleaded no contest, and was sentenced to a total term of 35 years to life in prison. He appealed, arguing that his motion to discharge his attorney should have been granted. Held: Reversed. A defendant is entitled to discharge retained counsel with or without cause, but the right to is not absolute. The request may be denied if it will result in either significant prejudice to the defendant or if it is untimely, i.e., if it will disrupt the orderly processes of justice. (See People v. Ortiz (1990) 51 Cal.3d 975.) Here, the Court of Appeal concluded Lopez’s request was not untimely as a matter of law. The case had been continued multiple times over the course of two years based on requests by both parties. The prosecution did not object to the defendant’s request to discharge his retained attorney, and informed the court that the witnesses would be available whenever needed. There was no indication that Lopez had improper motives in seeking to discharge his attorney. Additionally, he was not required to demonstrate an existing conflict with his attorney. The trial court did not suggest it was concerned with potential prejudice to Lopez. On remand, the trial court must permit Lopez to discharge his attorney and withdraw his plea.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/A148539.PDF