Judicial District of Tolland


     Habeas; Right to Counsel; Whether “Cause and Prejudice” can be Presumed in Claim of Trial Court Error; Whether Claim that Public Defender’s Ineligibility Finding was Erroneous was Properly Before Habeas Court and, if so, Whether Petitioner Met his Burden of Proof as to Claim.  The petitioner was charged with sexual assault and risk of injury and deemed ineligible for the services of a public defender because he owned property.  After the case was continued several times in order to allow the petitioner to retain private counsel, the case was scheduled for jury selection and the petitioner informed the court that he did not have sufficient funds to hire an attorney and that his property was in foreclosure.  The court asked the petitioner whether it should interpret his statements as an “implicit” waiver of his right to counsel and the petitioner responded: “At present, yes.  Unfortunately, I have no other choice.”  The court found that the petitioner waived his right to counsel and he was convicted following a trial.  He brought this habeas action, claiming that his waiver of his right to counsel was not knowing, intelligent, and voluntary.  The habeas court found that the public defender’s finding of ineligibility on the basis of the petitioner’s ownership of property was erroneous and it granted the petition, ruling that the petitioner did not validly waive his right to counsel because he mistakenly believed that he did not qualify for the public defender’s services and only acquiesced in representing himself because he could not afford private counsel.  On appeal, the commissioner of correction claimed that the petitioner’s right to counsel claim was procedurally defaulted because it had not been raised on direct appeal and because the petitioner failed to satisfy the “cause and prejudice” standard.  Under that standard, a claim is deemed defaulted unless a petitioner demonstrates good cause for failure to raise the claim on direct appeal and actual prejudice resulting from the impropriety claimed in the habeas petition.  The Appellate Court (151 Conn. App. 134) disagreed and affirmed the judgment, explaining that once the habeas court determined that the petitioner’s constitutional right to counsel was violated, cause and prejudice could be presumed.  Next, the commissioner claimed that because the habeas petition did not set out a claim challenging the public defender’s ineligibility finding, the habeas court improperly granted the petition on that ground.  The Appellate Court found that the habeas court properly determined that the issue of the propriety of the ineligibility determination went directly to the petitioner’s claim that he did not validly waive his right to counsel and was thus properly before the habeas court.  Finally, the court concluded that the habeas court properly found that the petitioner had met his burden of proving that the ineligibility determination was clearly erroneous, noting that the deputy chief public defender testified before the habeas court that ownership of property is not, in itself, a determinative factor in assessing eligibility, that the proper consideration is whether any equity in the property is readily accessible for use in retaining counsel and that the petitioner met the income eligibility guidelines to qualify for representation.  In this appeal, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Appellate Court properly determined that (1) “cause and prejudice” can be presumed in a claim of trial court error, and (2) the claim that the public defender’s ineligibility finding was erroneous was properly before the habeas court, and that the petitioner met his burden of proof as to that claim.