Carter v. Commonwealth

In Carter v. Commonwealth, 11 Va. App. 569, 400 S.E.2d 540 (1991), defense counsel moved to withdraw after allegations of misconduct were levied against counsel by the Commonwealth's attorney and were acknowledged by the trial court. The Commonwealth's attorney alleged that defense counsel harassed the victim's mother and pressured her into signing a release of the victim's psychological records. The mother revoked the release. The trial court conducted a hearing, which focused on the Commonwealth's allegation of misconduct rather than the revocation of the release. The trial court did not rule on defense counsel's alleged impropriety; rather, the court informed the Commonwealth's attorney that he could initiate whatever disciplinary action he deemed appropriate. After the hearing, defense counsel moved to withdraw, contending that a conflict of interest had arisen which forced counsel to protect their own interests rather than the defendant's interest. Defense counsel asserted that the Commonwealth's attorney's threat of initiating disciplinary proceedings would hamper their ability to properly defend their client during the impending trial. The trial court denied the motion to withdraw without making further inquiry. The defendant was subsequently convicted on all charges. The Court held in Carter that when defense counsel moved to withdraw, arguing that their representation of the defendant was compromised because of their own interests, the trial judge knew or should have known that a possible conflict of interest existed. The Court held that when a trial court fails to initiate an inquiry when the court knows or reasonably should know that a particular conflict exists, the law presumes the conflict resulted in ineffective assistance of counsel. See Carter, 11 Va. App. at 573-74, 400 S.E.2d at 543. The Court vacated the convictions and remanded the case to the trial court for the purpose of conducting a hearing to determine whether a conflict of interest actually existed that denied the defendant his right to effective assistance of counsel.