State v. Schowengerdt

State v. Schowengerdt, 2015 MT 133 (May 19, 2015) (Rice, J.) (5-0, rev’d)

Issue: (1) Whether the district court adequately inquired into Schowengerdt’s complaint of ineffective assistance of counsel, and (2) whether Schowengert received ineffective assistance of counsel.

Short Answer: (1) No, and (2) the Court does not reach this issue as it remands for inquiry into Schowengerdt’s complaints.

Reversed

Facts: Schowengerdt was charged with one count of deliberate homicide for the stabbing death of his wife. The morning after the murder, Schowengerdt provided a full confession.

Schowengerdt was assigned counsel from OPD, Steven Scott. Scott filed a notice that Schowengerdt intended to plead not guilty and assert the affirmative defense of justifiable use of force. However, a few months later, Schowengerdt agreed to plead guilty to deliberate homicide without the benefit of a plea agreement. At the change of plea hearing, Schowengerdt indicated he was satisfied with his attorney’s services and was voluntarily entering his plea. During the colloquy, he said he did not want to go to trial because, “I can’t handle it.” The court accepted the plea, and the matter was set for sentencing.

Two months later, Schowengerdt sent a handwritten note to the district court, seeking new counsel. Two days later, Scott moved to withdraw Schowengerdt’s guilty plea, and stated that no case law supported the withdrawal.

The district court ordered Scott to submit a memorandum explaining Scott’s position regarding his continued representation of Schowengerdt. Scott said he did not believe there had been a breakdown in the attorney-client relationship, and described the process by which Schowengerdt could file a complaint with OPD.

The court convened a hearing to address Schowengerdt’s letter asking for a change in counsel. The court interrupted Schowengerdt as he began to speak, reminding him of his right to remain silent. The court then directed him to follow OPD’s process for obtaining a different attorney.

Procedural Posture & Holding: The district court held a hearing on Schowengerdt’s motion to withdraw his plea. Scott appeared on Schowengerdt’s behalf, and the district court inquired into the issue of representation. Scott explained that OPD had denied Schwoengerdt’s request, and Schowengerdt has not administratively appealed the decision. The district court did not inquire further into Schowengerdt’s complaints about his counsel. On the merits, Scott said Schwoengerdt had changed his mind. Schowengerdt stated, “I don’t think I’m guilty. I know what the outcome was, but I think I was fighting for my life.” The district court denied the motion to withdraw the plea and sentenced Schowengerdt to life in prison. Schowengerdt appeals, and the Supreme Court reverses.

Reasoning: The threshold issue to determine whether a complaint of ineffective assistance is substantial is not whether counsel was ineffective, but whether the district court made an adequate inquiry into the defendant’s claim. A court’s failure to make an initial inquiry is reversible error. Here, the district court failed to make an adequate inquiry, and the record does not reflect whether the complaints were sufficient. The Court remands for an inquiry into Schowengerdt’s complaints about Scott.