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United States v. Spruhan

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

April 8, 2014



MICHAEL F. URBANSKI, District Judge.

The court entered an Order on February 28, 2014, denying defendant Guy Harvey Spruhan, IV's motion for substitution of counsel. Dkt. No. 120. The court now fully sets forth its reasoning below.


The Government has alleged a decade-long methamphetamine distribution conspiracy in a multi-count, multi-defendant Indictment. Spruhan is named in Count One. On January 8, 2014, Sruphan moved to substitute counsel. Dkt. No. 90. The Government objected, asserting that Spruhan's proposed counsel, Aaron Cook, Esq., had previously represented two witnesses cooperating with the Government and thus had a conflict which prevented him from representing Spruhan. Dkt. Nos. 92, 100. A hearing was held on January 29, 2014. At the hearing, the Government provided the identities of the cooperating witnesses: Danny Pryor and Doug Rankin. However, the Government was unable to provide any information at the hearing about the specific nature of those witnesses' expected testimony as to Spruhan. Because Spruhan was not a target of the investigation at the time Pryor and Rankin testified before the grand jury, the Government had not questioned these witnesses on Spruhan's alleged involvement in the charged conspiracy. Instead, the Government argued at the hearing that there was conflict based on the testimony these witnesses would give as to the amount of drugs distributed by the alleged conspiracy.

Pursuant to Pinkerton v. United States , 328 U.S. 640 (1946), if the Government proves its case, Spruhan will be legally responsible for the entire drug weight distributed by the alleged conspiracy that was reasonably foreseeable to him. Sawyer v. United States, No. 2:09CV634, 2011 WL 127144, at *2 n.3 T.D. Va. Jan. 13, 2011). However, in United States v. Cline, No. 1:12CR00044, 2013 WL 2237742 (W.D. Va. May 21, 2013), the Honorable James P. Jones declined to disqualify a law firm where one of the firm's attorneys represented a cooperating witness (Ritchie) and another attorney at the firm represented the defendant proceeding to trail (Cline) where the cooperating witness was merely providing background information about the alleged criminal scheme, not direct evidence against that defendant. Specifically, Judge Jones found that

representation of Ritchie and Cline by attorneys in the same law firm does not raise any significant risk of an impermissible conflict of interest. Ritchie's testimony will provide only background information about the alleged check-cashing scheme and will not supply any particular link to Cline. Indeed, Ritchie does not know Cline or anything about him. As such, Cline's attorneys do not foresee a need to vigorously cross-examine Ritchie or impeach her credibility.

Id. at *3. Accordingly, this court, sensitive to the absolutely essential nature of the Sixth Amendment right to counsel and recognizing the fact that "the right to select and be represented by one's preferred attorney is comprehended by the Sixth Amendment, " Wheat v. United States , 486 U.S. 153, 159 (1988), asked the Government to provide further information detailing the testimony it expected Pryor and Rankin to provide against Spruhan. Cf. id. at 160 ("[A] court confronted with and alerted to possible conflicts of interest must take adequate steps to ascertain whether the conflicts warrant separate counsel."); United States v. Tatum , 943 F.2d 370, 379 (4th Cir. 1991) ("When the risk of a conflict of interest is brought to the attention of the trial court... the court has the responsibility to investigate further....").

On February 12, 2014, the Government provided the information the court requested. Dkt. No. 115. Specifically, the Government proffered that it had interviewed Pryor and, upon being presented a photo spread, Pryor

immediately pointed out defendant Spruhan and another individual in the photo spread, and advised [] that he has met them both before, and that he knows they both sold drugs for someone he identified as "Tito". He also named defendant Spruhan and the other individual by name. Pryor further advised that the other individual had previously told him that he and Spruhan "moved a lot" of drugs for Tito together.

Id. at 5 (internal footnotes omitted). Furthermore, the Government reports that Pryor is interested in reducing his sentence through a Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 35(b) ("Rule 35") motion. Id. at 6.

Despite this additional information, Spruhan persisted in arguing that Cook was not conflicted out of representing him. Dkt. No. 116. Specifically, Spruhan argued that Pryor had provided "no direct evidence" of his involvement in the alleged conspiracy and that the only evidence Pryor was offering was a hearsay statement that "does not carry much information." Id. at 2-3 (emphasis original). Furthermore, Spruhan asserted, it would not be Pryor's credibility, but the declarant's, that would be at issue during trial. Id. at 3.


The Sixth Amendment right to counsel is arguably the single most critical right a criminal defendant possesses in our system of justice, for without the assistance of counsel many defendants would be unable to assert the other rights they are afforded.[1] Cf. Cahill v. Rushen , 678 F.2d 791, 799 (9th Cir. 1982) (Wallace, J., dissenting) ("It does not belittle the other constitutional rights enjoyed by criminal defendants to state that this right to counsel is perhaps the most important of all."). Furthermore, as previously noted, "the right to select and be represented by one's preferred attorney is comprehended by the Sixth Amendment." Wheat , 486 U.S. at 159; cf. Sanford v. Commonwealth of Virginia , 687 F.Supp.2d 591, 602 (ED. Va. 2009) (noting in the civil context that it is "important in our system of justice that parties be free to retain counsel of their choice").

This right, however, is not absolute. Indeed, the Supreme Court has recognized that "[t]he Sixth Amendment right to choose one's own counsel is circumscribed in several important respects." Wheat , 486 U.S. at 159. Importantly, a defendant's choice of counsel can be overcome by a showing of a conflict or a serious potential for conflict. Id. at 164; see also Cline, 2013 WL 2237742, at *2 (citing Wheat , 486 U.S. at 164); United States v. Edwards, No. 1:11CR161-1 , 2012 WL 959318, at *3 (M.D. N.C. Mar. 21, 2012) (same). This is because the essential aim of the Amendment is to guarantee an effective advocate for each criminal defendant rather than to ensure that a defendant will inexorably be represented by the lawyer whom he prefers.'" United States v. Urutyan , 564 F.3d 679, 686 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Wheat , 486 U.S. at 159). Thus, a defendant's choice of counsel may be trumped by the "paramount concern" of ...

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