S.D.N.Y. Discusses Split Re: Constitutional Rights of Pro Se Defendants While Incarcerated to Access State-Financed Law Libraries

Per Wesley v. City of New York, 2006 WL 2882972 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 10, 2006):

The Second Circuit has held that "the appointment of counsel can be a valid means of fully satisfying a state's constitutional obligation to provide prisoners, including pretrial detainees, with access to the courts" in conformity with constitutional requirements. Bourdon, 386 F.3d at 94. In other words, if a state supplies an inmate with "adequate assistance from persons trained in the law" through the provision of a court-appointed lawyer, id. at 97, it is not also obligated to give the inmate access to a legal library. Id. at 96 ("To provide the access constitutionally mandated, a state may be required to offer affirmative assistance to prisoners, but that assistance is not prescribed in narrow or specific terms or limited in form.")

The Second Circuit recently declined to rule on the issue of whether the same reasoning would apply in the context of a defendant who has elected to proceed pro se:

We express no view as to whether the appointment of counsel could adequately protect the right of access to the courts of a defendant who has ... exercised his Sixth Amendment right to waive counsel and conduct his own defense.

Id. at 94 n. 9. The circuit, however, has previously expressed deep skepticism about the proposition that "even if the state provides adequate legal services to prisoners, complete libraries must still be maintained to serve those who do not wish to be represented by counsel." Spates v. Manson, 644 F.2d 80, 84-85 (2d Cir.1981). Although the circuit recognized "that the right to represent oneself in criminal proceedings is protected by the Sixth Amendment," it stated that "the right does not carry with it a right to state-financed library resources where state-financed legal assistance is available." Id. at 85.

This view accords with those of most other circuits, which have found that defendants who voluntarily decline publicly funded counsel and choose to represent themselves have no constitutional right of access to a law library. See, e.g., United States v. Smith, 907 F.2d 42, 45 (6th Cir.1990); United States ex rel. George v. Lane, 718 F.2d 226, 231 (7th Cir.1983); and United States v. Chatman, 584 F.2d 1358, 1360 (4th Cir.1978). But see Bribiesca v. Galaza, 215 F.3d 1015, 1020 (9th Cir.2000) (citation omitted) ("An incarcerated criminal defendant who chooses to represent himself has a constitutional right to access law books or other tools to assist him in preparing a defense.). [FN4] Because the Second Circuit is unlikely to find that the right asserted by Wesley is guaranteed by the Constitution, his claim will be dismissed.

FN4. The Supreme Court recently acknowledged that there was a Circuit split on this issue but declined to resolve it. Kane v. Garcia Espitia, --- U.S. ----, 126 S.Ct. 407, 408 (2005).


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