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A criminal defendant, regardless of wherewithal, is entitled to the guiding hand of counsel at every step in the proceedings against him. The right attaches at arraignment and entails the presence of counsel at each subsequent "critical" stage of the proceedings.
Plaintiffs were defendants in various criminal prosecutions. They fled a complaint, alleging that they have been denied of effective assistance of counsel. The plaintiffs claimed that it was a fairly common practice in certain counties of arraigning criminal defendants without counsel and leaving them, particularly when accused of relatively low-level offenses, unrepresented in subsequent proceedings. In addition, the plaintiffs alleged that although lawyers were eventually nominally appointed for them, they were unavailable to their clients, or appeared to do little more on their behalf than act as conduits for plea offers, some of which purportedly were highly unfavorable. The Appellate Division, Third Department, (New York) held that the plaintiffs had no cognizable claim for ineffective assistance of counsel. The plaintiffs appealed.
Under the circumstances, did the appellate division correctly rule that the plaintiffs had no cognizable claim for ineffective assistance of counsel?
The Court of Appeals found, inter alia, that the plaintiff's questions went not to whether ineffectiveness had assumed systemic dimensions, but rather to whether the State met its foundational obligation to provide legal representation under U.S. Const. Amend. VI and CPL 180.10(3). Under the circumstances alleged by the plaintiffs, there was considerable risk that indigent defendants were, with a fair degree of regularity, being denied constitutionally mandated counsel in the subject counties. Accordingly, the Appellate Division erred in finding that the plaintiffs had no cognizable claim for relief.