Monday, June 1, 2020
Court of Appeal:
Judge Can’t Deny Right of Self-Representation Based on Legal—Not Mental—Incompetence
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A woman who had been found competent to stand trial had a right to represent herself on criminal charges even though she was plainly not equipped to handle a defense effectively, Div. Four of the First District Court of Appeal held Friday, in a 2-1 opinion.
Justice Alison M. Tucher wrote the majority opinion, in which Acting Presiding Justice Jon Streeter joined. Justice Tracie L. Brown dissented.
The defendant, Wakeen Best, was found guilty by a jury of animal abuse, burglary, and vandalism. She won a reversal on Friday because San Francisco Superior Court Judge Charles S. Crompton denied her the right under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1975 decision in Faretta v. California to represent herself.
Under questioning by Crompton, she expressed confusion over basic legal concepts—such as having a notion that a “speedy trial” means there is no jury and that the Evidence Code is comprised of various penal codes.
“When the court asked defendant about what legal defenses she might assert, her discussion of the law verged on incoherence,” Tucher noted.
Best’s rap sheet reflects 40 arrests over a 15-year period. However, it does not mention a criminal trial in San Mateo County lasting from 2007–12 in which Best insisted, in the colloquy with Crompton, that she represented herself and prevailed.
Nonetheless, the jurist wrote, Best had a right under Faretta to act as her own lawyer, saying that the “facts reveal little more than that defendant lacked knowledge of criminal law and courtroom procedure, which is not a basis to deny the right to self-representation.”
She went on to say:
“Although many of her answers to the court were rambling and betrayed a lack of understanding of the law, they do not indicate she was illiterate; indeed, her responses showed she had spent time reviewing the Penal Code and the Evidence Code. We recognize that she did not understand such concepts as specific intent and general intent, but her ignorance of legal procedure and language is not a basis to deny her the right to self-representation.”
In her dissent, Brown said that Crompton was not so concerned about Best’s competence to represent herself as he was over whether she had “knowingly and intelligently” waived her Faretta right and truly grasped the “dangers and disadvantages of self-representation” that were told to her. She added:
“In my view, Ms. Best’s interruptions—even after being admonished not to interrupt—and heated persistence with her false claim that she had successfully represented herself in a San Mateo case that lasted 5 years—despite being told that the RAP sheet contained no reference to any such case—provide an additional and independent basis on which to affirm the trial court’s denial of the Faretta motion.”
Tucher expressed the view that Best’s “invocation of the right to self-representation was unambiguous, and the record indicates it was knowing and voluntary.” She also pointed out:
“Although the court admonished defendant not to interrupt the court, it did not rely on any interruption or misbehavior in denying the Faretta motion.”
The case is People v. Best, A155459.
Best, a serial car burglar, encountered a 4-year-old Chihuahua named “Dunky” upon breaking into a Mercedes on the seventh floor of a San Francisco parking structure on Feb. 10, 2018. She tossed the dog to the sidewalk below.
Crompton sentenced her to three years in prison. Friday’s opinion remands the case for a new trial, with the comment:
“If defendant again seeks to represent herself, the request shall be considered in light of this opinion.”
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