Editor’s Note: Law Week Colorado edits court opinion summaries for style and, when necessary, length.
In this criminal case, the Colorado Supreme Court clarified that a trial court doesn’t need to make explicit findings as to every factor under People v. Brown when ruling on a defendant’s request for a continuance to change counsel. Under Brown, trial courts must apply a test when deciding whether to grant a continuance. The test weighs the public’s interest in the efficiency and integrity of the judicial system against the defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice.
In September 2016, a Best Buy employee found Palmer Gilbert in another employee’s car in the store’s parking lot. Gilbert exited the car and brandished a knife when the employee confronted him. Gilbert then fled on foot and attempted to carjack multiple vehicles, eventually succeeding. He ran a red light in the stolen car and caused a crash. Gilbert fled the scene on foot, stole a truck and drove it to Wyoming, where he was taken into police custody.
Gilbert was charged with 10 counts, including aggravated robbery, second-degree assault, first-degree aggravated motor vehicle theft, criminal trespass, careless driving and leaving the scene of an accident. He posted bond and absconded shortly after his release in December 2016. He was caught and arraigned a year later.
Two months after his arraignment, Gilbert’s attorney notified the court that he planned to introduce evidence of his client’s mental condition and request a court-ordered examination. Under state law, notice should be given at the arraignment, unless there is good cause. Gilbert pointed to his absence from the jurisdiction as well as his attorney’s uncertainty about the need to introduce mental health evidence as good cause for the untimely filing. However, the district court rejected this explanation and rejected the defense attorney’s request for a mental health evaluation.
Five days before the trial, set for March 2018, defense counsel informed the court that Gilbert was hiring new lawyers. The court responded that it was “too little, too late” and that it would deny any motions to delay the trial. The next day, Gilbert’s new attorneys filed a motion to continue, arguing that Gilbert believed his original lawyer was unprepared for trial. The new lawyers noted that the court had made similar observations and expressed its frustrations about the first attorney during the post-arraignment hearing on the notice to introduce mental health evidence.
The state opposed the motion, arguing Gilbert’s request was a delay tactic. Under the Brown test, courts must weigh factors such as whether the defendant has an improper motive for delaying the trial, whether delaying the trial would impact the court’s docket, whether granting the continuance prejudices the prosecution and whether the defendant’s chosen counsel is available to take the case. The state cited Brown factors such as Gilbert’s conduct and timing as well as the impact on victims and prejudice to the state as reasons his request for a continuance should be denied.
The court denied the motion for a continuance. In a later proceeding, the court also denied the original defense lawyer’s request to withdraw from the case. The case went to trial and Gilbert was convicted of seven of the 10 counts.
On appeal, Gilbert argued the trial court abused its discretion by denying his motion to introduce mental condition evidence and violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice.
A division of the court of appeals reversed, finding Gilbert’s lawyer had established good cause for the untimely notice of intent to introduce evidence of his mental condition. The division also held that the trial court should have made specific findings regarding each Brown factor and, because it failed to do so, reversed all of Gilbert’s convictions.
The Colorado Supreme Court affirmed the division’s judgment in part, but for different reasons. The high court found the trial court erred by requiring Gilbert to establish good cause for replacing his attorney. The justices then turned to the Brown test to determine whether the court should have granted a continuance for substitution of counsel. After weighing the Brown factors, the court concluded the district court abused its discretion in denying Gilbert’s request for a continuance, violating his Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice.
However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeals division’s finding that the trial court must make specific findings regarding each Brown factor. The court clarified that where the record is adequately developed, an appellate court may review the trial court’s denial of a continuance under the relevant Brown factors rather than remand the case.
The Supreme Court reversed Gilbert’s convictions and remanded the case for a new trial.