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United States v. Vega

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

January 22, 2019




         This matter comes before the Court by way of a motion to disqualify counsel for Defendant Luis Vega ("Defendant"), Charles Dawkins Jr., Esq., by the United States, being represented by Craig Carpenito, United States Attorney for the District of New Jersey (by Desiree Grace Latzer and Robert Frazer, Assistant U.S. Attorneys), because of a conflict of interest. (ECF No. 33). Defendant has opposed the Government's motion. (ECF No. 34). For the reasons set forth below, the Court finds that Mr. Dawkins's prior representation of Ramon Vega, an unindicted co-conspirator of Defendant, creates an actual or serious potential conflict of interest, such that Mr. Dawkins must be disqualified as Defendant's counsel.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The seven-count Superseding Indictment presently before the Court charges Defendant with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and marijuana relating to activity that transpired in Essex County, New Jersey, between April 2015 and March 2018. (ECF No. 28). The Superseding Indictment charges that Defendant "operated the drug distribution business from a house located on Clifton Avenue in Newark, New Jersey known as 'the Pink House'" together with two unindicted co-conspirators, Ramon Vega- Defendant's father and Adalberto Garcia. (ECF No. 28 at 2). The conduct that occurred at the Clifton Avenue house was also the basis for the indictments of Ramon Vega and Adalberto Garcia in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Essex County. (ECF No. 33 ("Gov. Br.") at 1; ECF No. 34 ("Def. Br.") at 4-5). In December of 2017, after a multi-week jury trial, Ramon Vega was found guilty of various narcotics charges resulting from the execution of a search warrant at the Clifton Avenue house in August of 2016. (Gov. Br. at 2; Def. Br. at 4). Mr. Dawkins represented Ramon Vega in those proceedings as of November 2016. (Gov. Br. at 2). Ramon Vega was sentenced to thirty-two years' imprisonment with sixteen years of parole ineligibility, and his appeal is currently pending. (Def. Br. at 9). Mr. Dawkins has since ceased his representation of Ramon Vega. (Gov. Br. at 2 n.l; Def. Br. at 6).

         The Government argues that, having represented Ramon Vega in the Essex County Superior Court criminal proceedings, Mr. Dawkins's continued representation of Defendant in these proceedings creates an actual or serious potential conflict of interest such that Mr. Dawkins cannot continue to represent Defendant consistently with Defendant's Sixth Amendment right to adequate representation and with the New Jersey Rules of Professional Conduct. (Gov. Br.). Defendant argues that disqualification of Mr. Dawkins is not warranted because no such conflict exists or, if any such conflict exists, it is curable by Defendant's waiver. (Def. Br. at 6-7).


         "The Sixth Amendment guarantee of effective assistance of counsel" includes a "correlative right[] ... to the attorney's undivided loyalty free of conflict of interest." United States v. Gambino, 864 F.2d 1064, 1069 (3d Cir. 1988). Also arising out of the Sixth Amendment is "a presumptive right to the counsel of one's own choice," which must be weighed against the defendant's right to conflict-free representation. United States v. Moscony, 927 F.2d 742, 748 (3d Cir. 1991). A district court must therefore "recognize a presumption in favor of [the defendant's] counsel of choice, but that presumption maybe overcome ... by a demonstration of actual conflict [or] by a showing of a serious potential for conflict." Wheat v. United States, 486 U.S. 153, 164 (1988). The Government bears the initial burden of proving either an actual conflict of interest or a serious potential for conflict. Moscony, 927 F.2d at 750. In the presence of a conflict, "a defendant 'may waive [the] conflict. . . and elect to have the attorney continue representation, so long as that waiver is knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.'" United States v. Fawkes, 510 Fed.Appx. 183, 187 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting Yeboah-Sefah v. Ficco, 556 F.3d 53, 68 (1st Cir. 2009)). However, a district court nevertheless "has discretion to disqualify counsel if [an actual or] potential conflict exists, even where the represented parties have waived the conflict." United States v. Stewart, 185 F.3d 112, 122 (3d Cir. 1999) (quoting Wheat, 486 U.S. at 164).

         On a motion to disqualify counsel for a conflict of interest, therefore, the Court's inquiry is twofold: "(1) first, [the Court] will determine whether the Government has satisfied its burden in establishing the presence of an actual or serious potential conflict of interest concerning Defense counsel's continued representation of the Defendant; and (2) if so, it will determine whether a waiver of conflict or other curative measure is appropriate under the circumstances in lieu of a formal disqualification." United States v. Lacerda, 929 F.Supp.2d 349, 356 (D.N.J. 2013).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Conflict of Interest

         In considering whether an actual or potential conflict exists, "the Court is ... guided by an additional set of rights '[stemming not from the Sixth Amendment but from ethical precepts that govern the legal profession'- -the Code of Professional Responsibility that regulates attorney conduct." Id. at 355 (quoting United States v. Kolodesh, No. 11-464, 2012 WL 1156334, at *4 (E.D. Pa. Apr. 5, 2012)). New Jersey's Rules of Professional Conduct define a "concurrent conflict of interest" as a situation in which "there is a significant risk that the representation of one or more clients will be materially limited by the lawyer's responsibilities to another client, [or] a former client." N.J. R. Profl Conduct 1.7(a). The Rules further provide that "[a] lawyer who has represented a client in a matter shall not thereafter represent another client in the same or a substantially related matter in which the client's interests are materially adverse to the interests of the former client unless the former client gives informed consent in writing." N.J. R. Profl Conduct 1.9(a). Finally, the Rules provide that a "lawyer who has formerly represented a client in a matter . . . shall not thereafter: (1) use information relating to the representation to the disadvantage of the former client" or "(2) reveal information relating to the representation" except as otherwise permitted or required by the Rules. N.J. R. Profl Conduct 1.9(c).

         The Government argues that Mr. Dawkins's prior representation of Ramon Vega creates an actual conflict of interest (or, at minimum, a serious potential conflict) with his current representation of Defendant in this case-in violation of these Rules and Defendant's Sixth Amendment right to conflict-free representation in the following ways: (1) Ramon Vega is unable to consider potential cooperation against Defendant for a possible reduction of Ramon Vega's sentence because of his shared counsel with Defendant; (2) Mr. Dawkins is unable to use information that he obtained during his representation of Ramon Vega to Defendant's benefit in the present case, nor is Mr. Dawkins able to pursue a strategy of shifting blame to Ramon Vega because of his ongoing duties to Ramon Vega as a former client; and (3) as Ramon Vega, an unindicted co-conspirator, is a potential witness in this case and may be called to testify, Mr. Dawkins would be unable to cross-examine him without encountering his divided loyalties. (Gov. Br. at 4-5).

         The Court finds that the Government has met its burden of showing that Mr. Dawkins's prior representation of Ramon Vega presents an actual or potential conflict of interest. Mr. Dawkins's ongoing duties to Ramon Vega as a former client impermissibly divide Mr. Dawkins's loyalties. See United States v. Roland, No. 12-298, 2016 WL 820951, at *9 (D.N.J. Mar. 1, 2016) ("An actual conflict of interest exists . . . when the attorney's representation of the defendant is impaired by loyalty owed to a prior client.") (quoting United States v. Jones, 381 F.3d 114, 119 (2d Cir. 2004) (quotation marks omitted)). The Court is particularly concerned about Defendant's inability, were Mr. Dawkins to remain as counsel, to pursue a strategy shifting blame to Ramon Vega, as well as Mr. Dawkins's inability to cross-examine Ramon Vega should the Government call him as a witness.

         Furthermore, Mr. Dawkins is prohibited by the Rules of Professional Conduct from remaining as counsel without waivers from Defendant and Ramon Vega. Defendant's case is "substantially related" to Ramon Vega's case within the meaning of Rule 1.9(a), because, in the course of their attorney-client relationship, Mr. Dawkins "received confidential information from [Ramon Vega] that can be used against [him] in the subsequent representation" of Defendant, or, because the two cases arise from the same alleged conspiracy, "facts relevant to the prior representation [of Ramon Vega] are both relevant ...

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