Circuit Court for Baltimore City Case # 107248042–48
Bell, C.J., Harrell, Battaglia, Greene, Adkins, Barbera, McDonald, JJ.
We are confronted here with the need to determine whether pre-trial statements made by, and on behalf of, Tyres Kennard Taylor on the morning of the commencement of his retrial (and thereafter) should have been construed by the trial court as requests to discharge his counsel under Maryland Rule 4-215(e), or merely as a request for a continuance. Pursuant to that Rule, a court must allow a defendant to discharge his or her counsel if the court, after providing the defendant an opportunity to explain his reasons, finds that such a request is meritorious. Taylor claims that the Circuit Court for Baltimore City (in the persons of a number of its judges) failed to comply with the mandate of Rule 4-215(e) and violated his constitutional right to counsel of his choice when, in separate pre-trial hearings before that court, Taylor was denied permission to discharge his counsel (an assigned public defender) after he made several purported requests to do so and replace the assigned counsel with a quite recently privately-retained attorney, whose representation was contingent on a seven-to-ten-day postponement of trial. Taylor was tried, represented by his previously-assigned Assistant Public Defender, and convicted. After Taylor appealed to the Court of Special Appeals, which concluded that the trial court violated Taylor's rights under Rule 4-215(e) and his constitutional rights with regard to counsel of his choosing, the State filed a timely Petition for Writ of Certiorari with this Court, which we granted. For reasons to be explained, we shall reverse the judgment of the Court of Special Appeals.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
The evidence adduced at Taylor's re-trial reveals that, on 17 May 2007, at approximately 2:00 a.m., police responded to reports of a shooting at the area around 200 Dallas Court, Baltimore. They found there Robert Perlie, lying face down, with a gunshot wound to his head. He died from the gunshot. An investigation of the incident revealed that the murder had been committed during a robbery earlier that day.
Several months later, police arrested Tyres Kennard Taylor (and his accomplice, James Giles) as suspects. They were charged in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City with the murder and robbery of Perlie and the robbery of three other young men, among other charges. Taylor was assigned Assistant Public Defender Gil Amaral, Esquire, as his attorney in the Perlie matters. At or about the same time, Taylor was charged with some unrelated crimes, for which Amaral was to represent him initially, but Leslie Stein, Esquire, replaced him as privately-retained counsel. The initial trial of Taylor in the Perlie matters was conducted in January 2010 and resulted in a hung jury and a mistrial was declared. Stein obtained a similar result in the initial trial of the unrelated charges. In the re-trial on the unrelated charges in May 2010, Stein achieved an acquittal of Taylor. Against this backdrop, Taylor's re-trial on the Perlie matters, where Amaral continued to represent him, was scheduled for trial on 8 June 2010.
The true crux of the present appeal begins with events that occurred on the morning of 8 June 2010, prior to commencement of Taylor's re-trial on the Perlie matters. On that morning, a postponement request hearing occurred before Judge Barry Williams of the Circuit Court for Baltimore City. Judge Williams, at the time, was a designee of the Administrative Judge for the purpose of entertaining requests for continuance. Taylor was not present at the hearing. The State informed Judge Williams first that the reason that Amaral and the State agreed to the June 8 re-trial date originally was because the case had been postponed fourteen times over its history and a witness for the State was available to testify at the re-trial only during the month of June. Stein was present also at the hearing. He informed Judge Williams that a family member of Taylor's had contacted him the night before to retain him to represent Taylor in the Perlie case. Stein requested the court to postpone the trial for ten days in order that he might prepare for his representation of Taylor. Judge Williams denied the request, stating that although he "generally would not have any problem with allowing counsel in[, ] . . . this [case] has been postponed too many times. This has been listed as a priority case." Judge Williams sent the case to Judge David W. Young for trial.
The issue of Taylor's perceived desire to replace Amaral with Stein was revisited on 9 June 2010 before Judge Young,  where the State requested the court to return the case to the Administrative Judge or designee, prior to the commencement of the re-trial, in order to "resolve" Taylor's request for a postponement. Judge Young based his decision to return the case to the Administrative Judge (or designee) on Md. Rule 4-271 and Guy v. State, 91 Md.App. 600, 611, n.11, 605 A.2d 642, 648, n.11 (1992), which provide that the Administrative Judge (or designee) has sole authority to grant a postponement "which would result in a trial date later than 180 days after arraignment or first appearance of counsel [i.e., the Hicks date]."
Judge Sylvester Cox, another designee of the Administrative Judge for the purpose of considering continuance requests, received the case on June 9. The following colloquy occurred:
[AMARAL]: In this situation, and I'm speaking on behalf of my client on this – and he can correct whatever things are not correct – I mean he does have a certain comfort level with Mr. Stein as a result of just having finished a trial with Mr. Stein. . . . So there's a comfort level there. And I know that the family was probably trying to come up with the funds to retain Mr. Stein, and that didn't happen until very – obviously until the day before trial.
So I'm in a situation where I'm ready for trial, but I understand my client's position with regard to wanting to have his choice of counsel. I don't – looking at the State's reasons, I don't know that we're looking at a long delay. . . . [I]f the court sends us to court, you know, I'm ready to go. I think [Taylor's] request is a reasonable one based on all the circumstances. The family's retained Mr. Stein on this case now.
THE COURT: But you're in the case?
[AMARAL]: But I'm in the case.
THE COURT: And you're prepared to go to trial?
[AMARAL]: I'm prepared . . .
THE COURT: . . . And you're in the case, and you're ready to go to trial, [State]?
[STATE]: I'm ready to go to trial, Your Honor. We were about to pick a jury.
THE COURT: Are you in the case, Mr. Stein?
[STEIN]: I'm only entering my appearance if the court will grant a one-week continuance.
THE COURT: I'm not so inclined. This case [is] from three years ago. This is a retrial. Mr. Amaral indicates he's prepared and ready to go to trial. [State] indicates [it's] prepared and ready to go to trial. Request is denied.
Judge Cox denied the requested continuance and returned the case to Judge Young for trial.
On June 10, the State asked Judge Young to resolve what it perceived to be Taylor's embedded request to discharge Amaral and retain Stein, asserting that, pursuant to Md. Rule 4-215, Taylor's request required the court to address that issue before proceeding to trial. Judge Young asked Amaral whether the State's argument was "an issue" for him. The following exchange ensued:
[AMARAL]: Judge, I don't have any strong position on it one way or the other.
. . . [T]he details of why Mr. Taylor wanted to replace me with Mr. Stein, I think were essentially summed up yesterday on the record, and that is that Mr. Stein had tried a murder case where Mr. Taylor was charged just recently and was able to successfully achieve an acquittal on that matter. And therefore Mr. Taylor felt comfortable and confident with Mr. Stein and that's why he wanted Mr. Stein to represent him on this case. Mr. Taylor, is that essentially the case, or am I missing anything?
[TAYLOR]: Um – that pretty much sums it up.
[AMARAL]: Did I do anything while I was representing you in the first trial, which we got a mis-trial on or subsequent to that, did I do anything in the course of preparing for the retrial that you weren't satisfied with?
[TAYLOR]: No, as far as the first trial, it was just the fact that in this trial I just felt as though as far as litigating on the certain of law,  it seems to be the best of my knowledge as I can understand it, that's the only thing I just didn't see eye to eye with you on. But other than that, I had no problem, I was pleased with.
THE COURT: And you're willing to have Mr. Amaral represent you, is that correct?
[TAYLOR]: I mean, if I don't have any other choice, obviously.
THE COURT: Well, you went to postponement court. Judge Cox denied the postponement for Mr. Stein to come in. So your choices are to keep Mr. Amaral, who is ready, willing, and able to represent you, or discharge him which means you would represent yourself. Right? Do you understand that sir?
[TAYLOR]: Yes sir.
THE COURT: Alright. And so you're willing to have Mr. Amaral represent you, is that correct?
[TAYLOR[: Yes I do.
The foregoing notwithstanding, the State contended that the Md. Rule 4-215 issue still had not been resolved. It appearing that the parties had exhausted Judge Young's patience, the judge decided it would be better for the case to be tried by another judge. He passed the case to Judge John N. Prevas for trial on June 10. After providing the State and Amaral an opportunity to explain the tortured procedural route by which the case arrived in his courtroom, Judge Prevas stated that he found no meritorious reason for granting Taylor's request to replace Amaral:
THE COURT: Did Judge Young ever rule that there was no meritorious reason for the discharge?
[THE STATE]: That's the issue that came up.
THE COURT: Right. Well, I find there's no meritorious reason for the discharge. Mr. Stein is welcome to become counsel in this case. The only thing is he has to do it immediately, but because he's ...