Court holds that pro se post-conviction petitioner must be given access to trial counsel’s case file

The appellant in People v. Dixon, 2019 IL App (1st) 160443 appealed the decision of the Circuit Court of Cook County to deny him access to his trial attorney’s file, after moving to represent himself, on the grounds that denial of access to those files rendered his waiver of post-conviction counsel invalid. The Appellate Court of Illinois First District ultimately reversed and remanded for new second-stage postconviction proceedings.

Following a conviction at jury trial for first degree murder and aggravated battery, appellant Charles Dixon, expressing dissatisfaction with his representation, filed motions to discharge his attorney. Id. at ¶ 8. The court granted his request to represent himself. Dixon subsequently filed a “Petition for Post-Conviction Relief with Memorandum of Law” (considered an addendum to the motion for a new trial), alleging ineffective assistance of counsel related to failures to present evidence at the hearing on the motion to suppress statements and support claims made about a witness’s integrity. Id. at ¶ 9-10. The trial court denied the motion for a new trial and sentenced Dixon to consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first degree murder and 30 years for aggravated battery. Id. at ¶ 11.

On direct appeal, the appellate court modified the sentences to run concurrently, but otherwise affirmed. Id. at ¶ 12. Dixon’s post-conviction petition contained seven allegations of ineffective assistance of counsel, which mirrored those of the pro se motion for a new trial. After nearly five years of delay following the appointment of counsel for post-conviction proceedings and an admonishment from the court that it was a “really bad decision,” Dixon chose to proceed pro se. Id. at ¶ 19.

Dixon requested access to trial counsel’s entire file, which was denied by the court for being outside the scope of discovery (following argument from the State that Dixon failed to establish good cause for the discovery). Id. at ¶ 22. Dixon was only granted access to a couple general progress reports. After a series of extensive delays caused by prison lockdowns, limited access to the law library, and misplacement of legal materials by DOC, Dixon unsuccessfully filed two motions for substitution of judge. Ultimately, the trial court dismissed Dixon’s post-conviction petition and denied reconsideration. Id. at ¶ 24. Dixon appealed.

Dixon argued on appeal that the “trial court erred when it granted Dixon’s motion to proceed pro se at the second stage but then handicapped him by refusing to allow access to the documents used by the attorney who previously represented him,” which he argues, renders his waiver of post-conviction counsel invalid. Id. at ¶ 26. Dixon argued in the alternative that the trial court’s rulings that the trial file constituted discovery and work product “were erroneous” and requested full access to his counsel’s trial file.

Dixon asked the court to remand for new second-stage proceedings under the Post-Conviction Hearing Act. The trial court offered two reasons for denying Dixon access to his trial counsel’s file: (1) that Dixon had failed to show anything other than the possibility that the file would assist in developing a post-conviction claim and, in its view, post-conviction discovery is limited to shoring up existing claims, and (2) the contents of the file constituted work product.

The appellate court found these arguments to be unpersuasive, holding that Dixon was entitled to the contents of the file. Id. at ¶ 28. In fact, the appellate court argued both that trial counsel’s file was not discovery, as the material did not require the production of new information, and even in the event that it was, the trial court’s reasoning was insufficient. Id. at ¶ 31. The court further explained that the trial court’s reasoning places petitioners in an “impossible dilemma” to use the evidence that they are requesting access to in order to demonstrate good cause, without being granted access to that evidence. Id. at ¶ 33.

The appellate court also disagreed with the trial court’s assertion that Dixon lacked a post-conviction claim, as the trial record had shown at least one instance of ineffective assistance of counsel that Dixon had planned to present prior to waiving counsel. On the work product argument, the appellate court found that the work product doctrine, which would prevent a party from accessing specific material (such as strategy notes), applies exclusively to preventing interference from opposing parties. Id. at ¶ 39. As such, the court ruled that access to any petitioner’s trial file cannot not be prevented via the work product doctrine, and even if it could, it would not do so in Dixon’s case. Id. at ¶ 40-41. The appellate court cited extensive support for these conclusions in Illinois courts, as well as courts around the United States and the Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys. The appellate court concluded that both of the reasons invoked by the trial court to deny Dixon access to his trial file were erroneous and reversed the decision on that basis. Id. at ¶ 50.

The Appellate Court of Illinois First District reversed the decision of the Circuit Court of Cook County to dismiss appellant Dixon’s post-conviction petition and remanded for further second-stage proceedings, during which Dixon will be granted access to his trial counsel’s file as outlined in the analysis. Id. at ¶ 55.

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