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The Eleventh Circuit And The Unwilling Pro Se Criminal Defendant

In my experience, many federal prosecutors play fair. They want to get their conviction, to be sure. The law gives them many advantages, and they’re happy to avail themselves of what the law gives them. But I don’t know of many federal prosecutors who go out of their way to take away a defendant’s lawyer.

Then again, I don’t practice in Georgia.

The Eleventh Circuit, today, reversed and remanded a case where a criminal defendant went to trial without a lawyer, because the government opposed him receiving appointed counsel. The case is United States v. Ly. Apparently, in some U.S. Attorney’s Offices, they read Gideon narrowly.

Shortly after he was charged with filling prescriptions “outside of the usual course of professional practice and without medical purpose”, under 21 U.S.C. 841(a)(1) and 21 C.F.R. section 1306.04, Mr. Ly, asked for appointed counsel. The government opposed his request for a lawyer. A magistrate judge worked with federal probation, and determined that Mr. Ly’s wife had significant assets, and that Mr. Ly had shared these assets with his wife. So the court determined that Mr. Ly cannot have an appointed lawyer.

The court’s strategy, apparently, was that Mr. Ly would come up with the money if the request for appointed counsel was denied.

Mr. Ly did not come up with the money. He went to trial without a lawyer. The government’s case in chief consisted of:

(1) expert testimony about the regulation of controlled substances; (2) expert testimony regarding standard prescription practices and how Ly’s actions deviated from those standard practices; (3) testimony from eleven of Ly’s patients explaining Ly’s prescription practices; (4) testimony from four retail pharmacists who became suspicious of Ly’s practices and therefore stopped filling prescriptions written by Ly; (5) evidence that pharmaceutical companies sold large quantities of controlled substances to Ly and that one company stopped selling to Ly because of these purchases; and (6) the results of a lawful search of Ly’s house and office.

In response, Mr. Ly tried to call his prior patients to testify that he was a good doctor who provided quality care. The court would not let him. He called a few witnesses, who offered little in support of his cause.

When the rest of Mr. Ly’s evidence was in, the judge had this conversation with him:

THE COURT: All right, Dr. Ly, I’ve heard you say that you have no more witnesses. Do you intend to testify in this case?

DR. LY: No, Your Honor.

THE COURT: Now, do you understand that you have an absolute right to testify in your own behalf?

DR. LY: Yeah, I know, but without counsel, Your Honor, I can’t testify.

THE COURT: So it is your personal decision not to testify in this case?

DR. LY: Because I don’t have counsel who can ask me questions.

THE COURT: Is it your personal decision not to testify in this case?

DR. LY: What do you mean, Your Honor?

THE COURT: Well, I’ve told you you have a right to testify. Is it your personal decision not to testify in this case?

DR. LY: No. I decide not to testify because I don’t have counsel to ask me questions. I cannot just be cross-examined without my counsel to ask–my own counsel to ask me questions.

THE COURT: So you choose not to testify, then?

DR. LY: If I don’t have my own counsel –

THE COURT: – Well, you know you don’t have counsel, Dr. Ly. That’s not the question. You’ve not had counsel since this trial started. Now, this is your opportunity to testify or not testify, and I want you to tell me on the record whether you intend to testify or not testify.

DR. LY: That decision I can’t make–I can’t make it in the split of a second, Your Honor. Could you give me . . .

THE COURT: Well, I’m assuming, then, and I’m taking that as a decision by you not to testify in your own behalf in this case.

DR. LY: I wouldn’t agree with that.

THE COURT: Well, we’ve got a jury sitting in the box, and it is your time to testify. And so you’re going to have to make that decision, and you’ve had months leading up to this trial to make that decision. Now, I’m not going to keep everybody waiting. I’m not going to keep the jury waiting, so you make a decision right now whether you’re going to testify or not testify.

DR. LY: I’m not going to testify.

Mr. Ly did not testify, was convicted, and was sentenced to serve 97 months in prison.

The thing about that conversation that the court had with Mr. Ly is that Mr. Ly is actually wrong when he says he can’t testify unless he has a lawyer. He can testify, he’d just testify in the narrative – he’d just talk, instead of being asked questions. But the district court judge never corrects that mistake, and allows him to persist in the belief that he’s unable to testify because he has no lawyer. Unable to call any witnesses or produce any other evidence, Mr. Ly doesn’t testify because he thinks he isn’t allowed to.

The Eleventh Circuit today said that violated Mr. Ly’s constitutional rights and reversed and remanded.

The issue is tricky – as the court explains, normally there’s a default position on a constitutional right:

In the right-to-counsel and guilty-plea contexts, the district court must satisfy itself that the defendant has waived his right knowingly and intelligently . . . and if the court is not so satisfied, it forces upon the defendant the constitutional default. In the case of the right to counsel, the default is an appointed attorney [sic – as to the facts of appointing counsel in this case], and in the case of a jury trial, the default is a plea of not guilty, followed by a jury trial.

In a question of whether to testify, there’s no default. A criminal defendant has an absolute right not to testify and an absolute right to testify. It’s totally his choice either way.

The court notes that this decision is normally informed by counsel. Here, the government went bare-knuckles to keep Mr. Ly from having a lawyer. So a lawyer he was kept from having. When a criminal defendant goes to trial without a lawyer, it is exceptionally hard to make sure his constitutional rights are not violated.

Pro se defendants are, frankly, a problem. It’s sad and wrong to have someone go without a lawyer when their freedom is at stake. If the person freely chooses to go it alone, the court has to let him engage in that folly. But here, where a person was asking, repeatedly, for a lawyer, to force him to trial without one is wrong.

If the government’s concern was that Mr. Ly was hiding money and trying to avoid paying for counsel, they had another option. The government, instead, could have sought appointed counsel and asked for a contribution order. That way, if Mr. Ly was convicted, at the time of sentencing the court would have conducted an inquiry into what money was available to pay the lawyer for his services from Mr. Ly’s funds. And the court could have made then ordered Mr. Ly to pay as much as he was able for his own defense. Here’s a link to one way to do the order from the U.S. Court’s webpage.

The government did not ask for a contribution order. They asked for a trial without defense counsel. Looks like they may get another one.

If you have questions about how federal criminal charges are different than state criminal charges, please visit this page on Maryland federal criminal charges or Washington DC federal criminal charges.