Monday, December 15, 2008
C.A. Tosses Conviction Over Mid-Trial Resignation From State Bar
Panel Says Lawyer’s Continued Representation, Styled ‘Capable’ by Judge, Still Mandates Reversal
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Sixth District Court of Appeal ruled Friday that a former San Jose attorney’s continued representation of a defendant despite resigning from the State Bar mid-trial in the face of disciplinary charges deprived the defendant of his state constitutional right to counsel.
Noting that Rudy Guzzetta ceased being a member of the State Bar the instant he tendered his resignation, and that California’s Constitution requires representation by a member at all critical stages of the prosecution, the court unanimously reversed Manuel Emilio Vigil’s felony assault and spousal injury convictions.
Writing for the court, Justice Richard J. McAdams said reversal was required because Vigil’s counsel was effectively “totally absent for state constitutional purposes,” despite Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Griffin Bonini’s conclusion at sentencing that Vigil had suffered no prejudice from Guzzetta’s “capable” representation during the trial.
Guzzetta was representing Vigil in April 2007 on charges of felony assault with a deadly weapon and misdemeanor driving with a suspended or revoked license, as well as charges of felony infliction of corporal injury on a spouse and misdemeanor violation of a protective order, when he resigned from the State Bar between the third and fourth days of trial.
The California Supreme Court subsequently accepted Guzzetta’s resignation on July 21, 2007.
Vigil’s first charge arose from an incident in September 2005, in which Vigil allegedly drove his car in front of his live-in-girlfriend’s car, stopped suddenly at a stoplight, and then backed into her car before fleeing. The second charge arose from an incident two months later in which Vigil is accused of having head-butted the woman and kicked her, despite a restraining order she obtained after the first incident.
Reportedly facing disciplinary charges involving allegations he had lied to the State Bar about compliance with an earlier suspension, Guzzetta maintained to Bonini that he was in active status to continue despite his resignation, and presented a defense witness, defended against a rebuttal witness, and argued Vigil’s case to the court on the last day of trial before receiving the verdict.
At the start of sentencing, and after Vigil had secured new counsel, Bonini noted that he had learned subsequent to trial that, despite Guzzetta’s apparent good-faith belief to the contrary, the attorney had been stripped of his ability to practice law when he became an inactive member by resigning in lieu of being terminated.
But Bonini concluded that the appropriate standard was to determine whether Vigil had been prejudiced, and sentenced the defendant to eight years in prison after concluding he had been “thoroughly, professionally [and] appropriately” represented.
On appeal, Vigil contended that Guzzetta’s resignation violated his right to counsel under the California Constitution, and McAdams, joined by Justices Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian and Wendy Clark Duffy, agreed.
Rejecting the attorney general’s contention that the California Supreme Court’s conclusion in In re Johnson (1992) 1 Cal.4th 689—that representation by an attorney who has submitted a resignation with disciplinary proceedings pending, and been placed on inactive status as a result, denies defendants their constitutionally guaranteed right to counsel, and is reversible error per se—was distinguishable because Guzzetta was a member for most of the trial, McAdams wrote:
“Article 1, section 15 of the California Constitution guarantees a criminal defendant the right to representation by a fully licensed member of the State Bar during his entire trial. Nothing in the rationale of Johnson suggests that a reviewing court may dispense with that guarantee if the defendant was represented by a member of the Bar for three-quarters, or one-half, or one-quarter of a trial before his attorney resigned from the Bar.”
State Bar records show that Guzzetta was admitted in 1974, and was disciplined in 1987 and 1993 for misconduct, including failure to perform legal services competently and failure to properly preserve client funds.
He was disciplined in 2000 for two matters in which he did not return client papers and property, despite clients’ repeated requests, and again in 2002 for three matters in which he respectively failed to perform legal services competently, represented adverse interests, accepted compensation to represent a client from someone other than the client, and failed to refund unearned fees.
The case is People v. Vigil, 08 S.O.S. 6631.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company