Wheat v. United States

PETITIONER:Mark Erick Wheat
RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION: Edward J. Schwartz United States Courthouse

DOCKET NO.: 87-4
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1988-1990)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

CITATION: 486 US 153 (1988)
ARGUED: Mar 02, 1988
DECIDED: May 23, 1988
GRANTED: Oct 05, 1987

John J. Cleary – on behalf of the Petitioner
Michael K. Kellogg – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case

For many years, Mark Erick Wheat allegedly participated in a far-flung marijuana distribution operation, acting mainly as an intermediary by receiving and storing shipments of marijuana in his home then distributing them around the region. Juvenal Gomez-Barajas and Javier Bravo were also allegedly involved in the operation. Attorney Eugene Iredale represented Gomez-Barajas and Bravo at trial. The trial court acquitted Gomez-Barajas on drug charges that overlapped with charges against Wheat, but Gomez-Barajas pleaded guilty to tax evasion and illegal importation of merchandise to avoid a second trial. At the beginning of Wheat’s trial, however, the court had not yet accepted Gomez-Barajas’ plea and he was free to withdraw it.

On August 22, 1985, Bravo pleaded guilty to one count of transporting 2,400 pounds of marijuana. Immediately after the proceedings, Iredale informed the court that Wheat contacted him to hire him as additional counsel; Gomez-Barajas and Bravo waived any objection. The United States expressed concern about the possibility of conflict arising from Iredale’s representation of both Iredale and Gomez-Barajas. The government pointed out that if Gomez-Barajas withdrew his plea, it was likely Wheat would be required to appear at his trial as a witness. In that event, Iredale would not be allowed to cross-examine Wheat. Further, it was possible that Bravo would be required to appear at Wheat’s trial as a witness as well.

Although Wheat emphasized his right to his choice of counsel under the sixth amendment, the district court denied his motion for a substitution of counsel. Wheat was convicted of conspiracy to possess 1,000 pounds of marijuana with intent to distribute and five counts of possessing marijuana with intent to distribute. The United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit, affirmed. It held that the district court correctly balanced the sixth amendment’s rights to choice of counsel and to a defense by an attorney free of conflicts of interest.


Did the district court violate Wheat’s Sixth Amendment right to his choice of counsel by refusing to permit Wheat’s additional counsel due to a possible conflict of interest?

Media for Wheat v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 02, 1988 in Wheat v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 23, 1988 in Wheat v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

In second of the two cases, No. 87-4, Mark Erick Wheat versus United States.

Here the petitioner and numerous co-defendants were charged with participating in an elaborate drug distribution conspiracy.

At trial, two of the petitioner’s co-defendants were represented by an attorney named, Eugene Iredale.

Shortly before his — his trial was to commence, petitioner asked the District Court to allow the substitution of Iredale as his counsel as well.

Both petitioner and his co-defendants were willing to waive the right to conflict-free counsel but the District Court denied the substitution motion on the basis of what it perceived as to be irreconcilable and unwaiveable conflicts of interest for Iredale.

The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed.

In an opinion filed today, we agree with the Ninth Circuit that the District Court did not err in refusing to approve petitioner’s proposed substitution of counsel.

Justice Marshall has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Brennan joins.

Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Blackmun joins.