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Mohave County, Arizona Appointed Counsel Selection System Unconstitutional

On April 3, 1984, the Supreme Court of Arizona held that the system of selecting and compensating appointed counsel in Mohave County, Arizona, violated the constitutional rights to due process and counsel.

Joe. U. Smith was convicted of burglary, sexual assault and aggravated assault. The victim had described her assailant as having a full beard and going into the trailer across the street from her residence after the crime. Smith's defense was that he was in living with his sister in another city and had shaved his beard at the time of the crimes, unlike his brother, who lived across the street from the victim and had a full beard. The police had shown the victim a line up with Smith's photo, which she picked out, but had never shown her a photo of Smith's brother.

Smith's court-appointed attorney had Smith's sister testify that he was beardless and living with her in another city when the crime occurred. However, he failed to locate the sister's boyfriend to similarly testify. After the state rested, the boyfriend was located, but the judge refused to allow him to testify because the defense attorney had failed to put him on the witness list. Smith was convicted and appealed. The court of appeals affirmed the conviction and Smith appealed to the Supreme Court of Arizona.

The Supreme Court held that the trial court erred in excluding this essential witness. However, it went on to address a wider issue raised in the appeal--whether the method of selecting appointed counsel in Mohave County violated the constitution. The method required an attorney to submit a bid for 25% of the county's indigent legal work. The lowest four bids were selected.

In the eleven months prior to Smith's trial, his attorney worked 149 felonies, 160 misdemeanors, 21 juveniles cases and 33 other cases in addition to 75 trials as appointed counsel for the City of Kingman and a private civil practice. The Supreme Court said it "is obvious that the caseload of defendant's attorney was excessive, if not crushing." The caseload far exceeded the guideline for appointed attorneys set by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Because of the excessive caseload caused by the bidding method and the fact that appointed counsel had to pay for any investigator, paralegal or other support personnel out of the annual contract fees (which ranged from $24,000 to $34,400 the year of the trial), making it unlikely the attorney would use such support personnel, the method of selecting appointed counsel violated the right to counsel and due process rights guaranteed by the United States and Arizona Constitutions. However, the inequalities between Mohave County and other counties' selection systems did not violate Smith's equal protection rights nor did he prove that he specifically had received ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Supreme Court ordered new selection procedures be initiated. It noted that anyone seeking relief due to the unconstitutional selection procedures would have to prove ineffective assistance of counsel in their particular case. The Supreme Court also reminded attorneys that they could face disciplinary sanctions for taking on too many cases and providing inadequate representation. The decision of the court of appeals was reversed based on the erroneous witness exclusion and the judgment of conviction reversed with the case remanded to Superior Court for a new trial. See: State v. Smith, 140 Ariz. 355, 681 P.2d 1374 (Ariz. 1984).

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Related legal case

State v. Smith