Court finds public defender who did not meet basic experience requirements not ineffective

I previously wrote about who qualifies for a public defender. In order to ensure indigent defendants receive effective assistant of counsel, the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) has adopted standards for indigent defense for public defenders to meet. In the recent decision, State v. Flores, Division III of the Court of Appeals was asked whether a defendant’s conviction should be overturned if the public defender on the case did not meet those standards for indigent defense.

The defendant in the case went to trial on a charge of Robbery in the First Degree and Assault in the First Degree, both class A felonies (meaning they are punishable by up to life in prison and a $50,000 fine, and are also a strike offense). In order to defend a person of a class A felony, Standard 14.2 B requires the public defender to either have had at least two years experience as a prosecutor, public defender, or a private criminal defense attorney. The attorney in the case did not have the requisite two year experience, and in fact, was aware that they did not meet Standard 14.2 B. Despite this, the attorney did not bother to inform the court of they lacked the required experience and the defendant was convicted.

On appeal, the court was asked to reverse the conviction and remand the case for a new trial based on the attorney’s knowing failure to meet Standard 14.2 B (meaning they had less than two years experience in criminal law). The court concluded that while a violation of the standards of indigent defense is evidence of deficient performance to be considered in assessing an ineffective assistance of counsel challenge, it does not, by itself, require a finding of ineffective assistance of counsel and reversal of a conviction. The court concluded that in this particular case, even though the attorney had less than two years experience, the attorney was not ineffective and the conviction was upheld. It will be interesting to see if the case is appealed to the Washington Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court overrules the Court of Appeals, it will send a clear message that counties and cities in Washington must ensure public defenders are fulfilling the standards of indigent defense or face convictions being overturned.