The opinion of the court was delivered by: Sweet, D.J.,
Petitioner Elias Guzman ("Guzman"), a prisoner in state
custody, brings this pro se habeas corpus action pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 2254(b). He alleges that (1) his guilty plea was not
voluntary, knowing or intelligent due to the fact that he was
heavily medicated during the allocution; (2) his trial counsel
rendered ineffective assistance in violation of the Sixth
Amendment both by making a crucial legal error and by testifying
in opposition to Guzman's subsequent motion to withdraw his
guilty plea; and (3) the trial court's failure to appoint new
counsel violated his due process and equal protection rights
under the Fourteenth Amendment. For the reasons discussed below,
the case is remanded to the state court for an evidentiary
hearing on the motion to withdraw the plea with new counsel.
In 1996, Guzman was charged with first-degree robbery in the
Supreme Court, New York County. On March 3, 1997 at a hearing
before the Honorable Harold J. Rothwax, Guzman stated that he was
unhappy with his attorney, Joseph Ronson ("Ronson"), and wished
to be assigned new counsel. One of the grounds for the motion, as
Ronson told the court, was that, in bringing a motion to
suppress, he had mistakenly conceded that Guzman had possessed a
box-cutter on his person, whereas in fact, the box-cutter had
been discovered on the ground one or two feet away when Guzman
was arrested.*fn1 Judge Rothwax allowed the defense to amend the
motion to reflect Guzman's contention that he did not possess the
box-cutter, denied the motion to suppress as to the box-cutter
for lack of standing, and denied the motion for reassignment of
The next day, Guzman appeared before the Honorable Michael
Gross for a Wade and Mapp hearing. Before the hearing began,
Judge Gross inquired whether the parties had discussed possible
dispositions. The prosecutor stated that the People had offered
Guzman a plea carrying a sentence of nine years, with the
People's recommendation to increase to twelve years after the
hearing. If convicted after trial, Guzman would have faced a
statutory maximum determinate sentence of twenty-five years as a
second felony offender.
Judge Gross then again asked the parties if a plea was
possible. Ronson stated that he and Guzman were not communicating
effectively, and the hearing was adjourned briefly. After the
parties returned, Ronson stated that he had discussed the
possibility of a guilty plea with Guzman. Ronson informed the
court that Guzman was suffering from "significant pain" due to
carpal tunnel syndrome, for which Guzman had taken "considerable
medication," id. at 13-14. Ronson stated that he was "not in
position . . . to assess what I believe to be an affect [sic] on
his ability to understand the proceedings here" but suggested
that Guzman might be amenable to a disposition nonetheless,
despite the fact that Ronson had not met with Guzman once during
the previous month and that they "weren't done speaking" when the
case was recalled that day. Id. Ronson stated that Guzman was
interested in pleading guilty if the court would follow the
People's request that a sentence of no more than nine years be
imposed, and if Guzman could be transferred to the hospital at
Riker's Island for treatment, see id. at 15-17. The court agreed,
and Ronson stated that Guzman intended to withdraw his plea of
not guilty and enter a plea of guilty.
The allocution was not a model of clarity. When Judge Gross
first asked Guzman whether he wished to plead guilty, Guzman
replied "yes." Id. at 22. But, when asked if he had been given
enough time to confer with his attorney, Guzman replied, "Yes. We
talked about it. I wanted to know if I could have more time to
think about it. I don't know if it's possible. Is it possible?"
Id. The court offered to delay the allocution for thirty minutes
to give Guzman time to consider this "crucial decision," but
Guzman stated that he was ready to continue. When asked if he was
satisfied with the advice Ronson had given him, Guzman replied in
the affirmative. However, when asked to admit to the substantive
elements of the crime, Guzman did not respond, and the allocution
was delayed for another twenty minutes.
When the hearing resumed, Judge Gross stated the charge as set
forth in the indictment and asked Guzman if the facts asserted
therein were true, to which Guzman replied, "No." Id. at 25.
After the attorneys informed the judge of the details of the
crime, Ronson stated "I spoke to Mr. Guzman. I haven't heard
anything in my discussions with him which would require me to
tell the Court there was no legal or factual basis for a guilty
plea in this case. He wishes you to consider and continue the
allocution that started earlier." The allocution then resumed
again, and Guzman gave satisfactory answers until he was asked
what weapon he used in the commission of the attempted robbery.
He replied, "Whatever they have. I don't know. [Pause] A sharp
object." Id. at 30.
After ascertaining that this allocution was acceptable to the
prosecutor, the judge then went on to advise Guzman of all the
rights he was waiving by pleading guilty. However, although
Ronson had stated on the record that Guzman had taken
"considerable medication," and there had been difficulties in the
allocution, id., the judge did not make any inquiries as to the
effect of that medication on Guzman before he accepted the plea.
At sentencing on April 7, 1997, Ronson notified Judge Gross
that Guzman had prepared a pro se motion to withdraw his guilty
plea and for appointment of new counsel. After Ronson summarized
Guzman's various grounds for the motion in an extensive colloquy
with the judge, the prosecutor derisively dismissed the
allegations. See id. at 17-18 ("He can sit here from now until
dooms day [sic] as far as I'm concerned and say he's innocent.
He's being framed and all the reference of his nonsense, but it's
not happening. Now as to his other claims, and for him to somehow
say that you [sic] some improper contact
between myself and Mr. Ronson is absolutely ridiculous.").
Of the several claims raised in Guzman's motion, Ronson
identified the coercion claim as having the most merit, and
suggested that Guzman should be appointed counsel given the
obvious conflict of interest raised by having Ronson argue his
own ineffectiveness. In relevant part, the subsequent exchange is
set forth below:
Court: . . . again I'm not trying to intrude on the
confidential aspect of your relationship with
Mr. Guzman, but are there any other
communications that argubly [sic] that would
support the claim of coersion [sic] on Mr.
Guzman's part by counsel?"
Ronson: No. There's an error in the — his
characterization of his exposure after trial, and
that appears in two pages of his letter which
supports his motion. He faces twenty-five years in
prison. That's a huge amount of time. He does not
face twenty-five years to life in prison. As for
anything else, unfortunately I believe my
communication with him are protected by the
attorney/client privilege at this point.
Guzman was then given the opportunity to state the detailed
grounds for his motion on the record, including his claim that he
was over-medicated at the time of the plea, that the defense
attorney and prosecutor had engaged in improper communications,
and that the proof of his innocence was that his carpal tunnel
syndrome rendered him physically unable to commit the crime
charged. Ronson then stated, "If I was in receipt of information
that the defendant was disoriented, and unable to proceed to
hearing and trial, I would have made that plain to the Court."
Id. at 28-29.
Although the court accepted the proffer that Guzman had been
medicated on the date of the allocution, see id. at 29, the ...