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State v. Hightower

Supreme Court of Oregon

April 27, 2017

STATE OF OREGON, Respondent on Review,
v.
GREGORY LEON HIGHTOWER, aka Gregory Leon Hightower, Sr., Petitioner on Review.

          Argued and Submitted September 23, 2016

         On review from the Court of Appeals CC 120632737; CA A154220. [*]

          Ernest G. Lannet, Chief Defender, Salem, argued the cause and fled the briefs for petitioner on review.

          Erin K. Galli, Assistant Attorney General, Salem, argued the cause and fled the brief for respondent on review.

          Before Balmer, Chief Justice, and Kistler, Walters, Landau, Brewer, and Nakamoto, Justices. [**]

         The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed. The judgment of the circuit court is reversed, and the case is remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings.

         Case Summary: In a criminal prosecution, the trial court denied defendant's mid-trial motion to represent himself. The Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of that motion and defendant petitioned for review. Held: (1) when a defendant attempts to exercise the constitutional right to self-representation after trial has begun, the trial court has discretion to grant or deny that motion; and (2) because the trial court erroneously stated that it had no discretion to allow defendant to represent himself mid-trial, it erred in denying defendant's motion.

         The decision of the Court of Appeals is reversed. The judgment of the trial court is reversed.

          LANDAU, J.

         The issue in this case is the scope of a criminal defendant's right to self-representation when that right is invoked in the middle of trial. We hold that, although Article I, section 11, of the Oregon Constitution establishes a criminal defendant's right to represent himself or herself in a criminal proceeding, the right is not unqualified. In particular, when the right is asserted well after trial commences, the trial court retains discretion to weigh its exercise against the constitutional obligation to preserve the integrity and fairness of the proceeding, as well as the court's interest in ensuring an orderly and expeditious trial. If a trial court exercises that discretion to deny a defendant's motion for self-representation, it should make a record that reflects how it exercised that discretion.

         In this case, the trial court concluded that defendant had no right to seek self-representation mid-trial. The Court of Appeals affirmed on the ground that the trial court's decision reflected an "apparent" concern about potential disruption of the trial and, because of that concern, did not amount to an abuse of discretion. State v. Hightower, 275 Or.App. 287, 293, 364 P.3d 29 (2015). We conclude that the trial court erred as a matter of law in concluding that a defendant may not assert the right to self-representation once trial has commenced. Accordingly, we reverse the decisions of the trial court and Court of Appeals and remand to the trial court for further proceedings.

         The relevant facts are not in dispute. Defendant was charged with a number of sex offenses, based on evidence that he sexually abused a 16-year-old girl and forced her and her 18-year-old step-sister into prostitution. Defendant asked for court-appointed counsel, and the court granted the request.

         Defendant was less than enthusiastic about his court-appointed counsel. He asked the court to replace the lawyer several times, but, each time, the court declined, explaining that defendant's various complaints about his lawyer amounted to disagreements about trial strategy.

          During the first three days of the trial itself, during the state's case-in-chief, defendant repeatedly complained about defense counsel's actions, questioning his performance, instructing him to ask further questions, and attempting to object to witness testimony. The trial court responded by telling defendant to be quiet and ...


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