Monday, November 1, 2010

Corporation's right to counsel is limited to the counsel it can afford

United States v. Rocky Mountain Corp., No. 5:07CR58, 2010 WL 4236793 (W.D. Va. Oct. 27, 2010).

How often do you run across a corporation challenging the validity of its guilty plea via a writ of coram nobis? 

Rocky Mountain Corp. maintains that its plea was not a knowing and voluntary plea because of the pressure the government placed on its president, that the fine and forfeiture the court imposed exceeded the amount authorized by controlling statutes and were constitutionally excessive, and that it received ineffective assistance of counsel. The statement of facts detailed a considerable methamphetamine conspiracy, as well as a conspiracy to structure financial transactions and launder the proceeds of the methamphetamine conspiracy through Rocky Mountain.

The Court denied the writ because the corporation could not satisfy three prongs:  (1) a more usual remedy is not available; (2) valid reasons exist for not attacking the conviction earlier; . . . and (4) the error is of the most fundamental character.

In the ineffective assistance of counsel claims, the Court stated that a corporation's Sixth Amendment right to counsel distills to two components: (1) its right to choose counsel it can afford, and (2) to the proscription of governmental interference or the application of rules that degrade counsel's effectiveness in ways the Constitution would not tolerate if an individual were charged with an offense. The Court dismissed on the ground that Rocky Mountain's Sixth Amendment allegations do not implicate either of these concerns.

A corporation's Sixth Amendment right in a criminal trial is its right to retain counsel while an individual's Sixth Amendment right includes the right to appointed counsel. Unlike an individual, a corporation cannot have what it cannot afford. A corporation that can be tried in a criminal case without counsel cannot raise the corollary claim that the counsel of its choosing failed to meet Strickland's standard for competence. In sharp contrast to its responsibility to an individual, the government has no responsibility to ensure that a corporation is represented by competent counsel. Consequently, corporate counsel's errors are not imputed to the government.

The Court went on to note that even if it concluded that a corporation's right to counsel parallels an individual's right to counsel, as some courts have held, in this case Rocky Mountain Corp. is still unable to satisfy Strickland's two prongs.

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