Bad news for post-conviction indigent appellants: No right to Wende review

A California criminal defendant entitled to appellate counsel appointed by the state has one trick up his sleeve that defendants who hire their own counsel don’t: Wende review. When an appellant’s appointed counsel provides the Court of Appeal with a brief setting forth the substantive and procedural facts and informing the court that counsel has reviewed the record and can find no basis for challenging the judgment, the Court of Appeal must independently review the record for prejudicial error warranting reversal. This process is required in order to assure that the indigent appellant is not deprived of his constitutional right to counsel.

But is an indigent appellant with appointed counsel entitled to Wende review on appeal from a post-conviction judgment? No, says the court in People v. Serrano, case no. H036373 (6th Dist., Nov. 28, 2012). In this case of first impression, the appeal was from an order denying a motion to vacate the conviction, which the appellant sought in order to avoid deportation. His counsel filed a Wende brief, asking the Court of Appeal to review the record for error. The court notified appellant of his right to file his own argument, received nothing, and commenced its Wende review. During that review, they discovered that appellant had appealed his original conviction (and later dismissed that appeal), which triggered the Court of Appeal to ask for briefing on whether appellant had a right to Wende review in this appeal from a post-conviction judgment.

The first basis for the court’s ruling was the United States Supreme Court decision in Pennsylvania v. Finley (1987) 481 U.S. 551, in which it held that similar review in Pennsylvania was not required in appeals from post-conviction proceedings because the defendant had no constitutional right to counsel in those proceedings. That the state made a decision to provide counsel, even though it was not constitutionally required to do so, did not mean that the defendant was entitled to the court’s independent review. So, there was no federal basis for invoking Wende review in this case.

How about a state basis? Not there, either, says the court. Looking to state court decisions regarding the right to Wende review in other cases of state-appointed counsel (such as juvenile dependency and conservatorship proceedings), the court concluded that the California Supreme Court had relied on Finley “to restrict the availability of [Wende] review in a multitude of contexts.” In those decisions, says the court, the Supremes “held that due process does not mandate extending these procedures beyond the first appeal of right in a criminal prosecution.”

Nonetheless, those decisions were not criminal cases. Rather than rely on those cases without further analysis, the Court of Appeal went through the same three-part test used by the Supremes in the juvenile and conservatorship cases: “ ‘(1) the private interests at stake; (2) the state’s interests involved; and (3) the risk that the absence of the procedures in question will lead to an erroneous resolution of the appeal.’ [Citations.]”

The collateral attack on the judgment in this case came several years after the conviction and after the defendant had served his sentence. Analyzing the three factors, (1) the court found that appellant’s interest in avoiding deportation was very high: (2) the state’s interest in”securing a just appellate resolution, reducing procedural costs and burdens, and concluding the proceedings both fairly and expeditiously” outweighed the appellant’s interests, especially in “these times of decreasing judicial budgets and the resulting overall reduction in public access to justice.” Turning to the third factor, the likelihood of an erroneous resolution of the appeal, the court stated:

[D]efendant‟s conviction has long been final and his sentence served. Although, he chose to dismiss his first appeal of right, he could have obtained a review of his conviction had he so chosen. In each appeal, he has been afforded the right to appointed counsel, and each of those counsel were supervised by this district‟s appellate project. [Citation.] Given the multitude of protections already afforded the defendant, the risk of erroneous appellate resolution without Wende review for a collateral attack on the judgment is minute.

The court set forth a procedure for “all future criminal appeals arising from proceedings other than the first appeal of right, where appointed counsel finds no arguable issues.” (My emphasis.) But I think its analysis leaves wiggle room for arguing that Wende review may be applicable in appeals from certain post-conviction proceedings. After all, its analysis of the 3-pronged test would have been unnecessary if the California Supreme Court cases had established a firm rule. For example, how might this balancing differ if the courts were not in dire financial straits? Or if the appellant’s first appeal had been dismissed because of his counsel’s ineffective assistance?

These considerations may lead to Supreme Court review. After all, as the Court of Appeal noted, “the California Supreme Court has not specifically considered the availability of [Wende] review in a post-conviction collateral attack on a judgment.”

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