324 U.S. 786 (1945), 391, Rice v. Olson

Docket Nº:No. 391
Citation:324 U.S. 786, 65 S.Ct. 989, 89 L.Ed. 1367
Party Name:Rice v. Olson
Case Date:April 23, 1945
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 786

324 U.S. 786 (1945)

65 S.Ct. 989, 89 L.Ed. 1367




No. 391

United States Supreme Court

April 23, 1945

Argued February 1, 1945



Petitioner, an Indian under a state court sentence of imprisonment for one to seven years upon his plea of guilty to a charge of burglary, petitioned a state court for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that he had been deprived of due process of law in that the trial court failed to advise him of his constitutional rights to counsel and to call witnesses; that he had not waived those rights by word or action, and that the conviction was void because the alleged crime was committed on an Indian Reservation which was within exclusive federal jurisdiction.


1. The allegations of the petition showed a prima facie violation of petitioner's right to counsel, and he was entitled to a hearing upon them. Pp. 788, 791.

2. By his plea of guilty, petitioner had not waived his constitutional right to counsel. P. 788.

3. The state court having placed its judgment of dismissal squarely on the absence of merit in the petition, this Court cannot conclude that the petition failed to satisfy procedural requirements. P. 792.

144 Neb. 547, 14 N.W.2d 850, reversed.

Certiorari, 323 U.S. 696, to review a judgment affirming the dismissal of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus.

BLACK, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE BLACK delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner, an Indian, without benefit of counsel pleaded guilty to a charge of burglary in the District Court of Thurston County, Nebraska, and was sentenced to from

Page 787

one to seven years. He petitioned another state District Court for a writ of habeas corpus seeking release from the penitentiary on the grounds, among others,1 that he had been deprived of his constitutional right of counsel, and that the state court lacked jurisdiction. He alleged that he was ignorant of the law, and that, in preparing his petition, he had no one to help him except a fellow inmate. Petitioner did not challenge the facts stated in the judgment entry, i.e., that, in the burglary proceedings, he was arraigned and pleaded guilty, that the burglary statute was read to him, and that he then reiterated his plea. He challenged the validity of the judgment, however, on the ground that, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, he had been deprived of due process of law in that the trial court failed to advise him of his constitutional rights to counsel and to call witnesses. Petitioner further alleged that he had not waived those rights by word or action. Finally, the petition alleged that the conviction was void because the alleged crime was committed on an Indian Reservation which was exclusively within federal jurisdiction.

The petition was dismissed by the state District Court, for lack of merit, without an answer and without a hearing. Petitioner then moved to set aside the dismissal, repeating his allegations and requesting the appointment of counsel to assist him. The motion was denied, and petitioner, again acting in his own behalf, appealed to the Supreme Court of Nebraska. That court, without requiring an answer, affirmed the District Court. 144 Neb. 547, 14 N.W.2d 850. Because important constitutional

Page 788

rights are involved, we granted certiorari and appointed counsel to represent petitioner. 323 U.S. 696.

In affirming, the Nebraska Supreme Court stated that

It is not necessary that there be a formal waiver, and a waiver will ordinarily be implied where accused appears without counsel and fails to request that counsel be assigned to him, particularly where accused voluntarily pleads guilty.

It is apparent that the court's affirmance did not rest on its statement that a plea of guilty "ordinarily implied" a waiver of the right to counsel, but upon a holding that such a plea "absolutely" and finally waives that right.2 This is inconsistent with our interpretation of the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Whatever inference of waiver could be drawn from the petitioner's plea of guilty is adequately answered by the uncontroverted statement in his petition that he did not waive the right either by word or action. This denial of waiver squarely raised a question of fact. The state Supreme Court resolved this disputed fact by drawing a conclusive implication from the petitioner's plea of guilty. This is the equivalent [65 S.Ct. 991] of a holding that one who voluntarily pleads guilty without the benefit of counsel has thereby competently waived his constitutional right to counsel, even though he may have sorely needed and been unable to obtain legal aid. A defendant who pleads guilty is entitled to the benefit of counsel, and a request for counsel is not necessary. It is enough that a defendant

Page 789

charged with an offense of this character is incapable adequately of making his defense, that he is unable to get counsel, and that he does not intelligently and understandingly waive counsel.3 Whether all these conditions exist is a matter which must be determined by evidence where the facts are in dispute.

The petitioner's need for legal counsel in this case is strikingly emphasized by the allegation in his habeas corpus petition that the offense for which the state court convicted him was committed on a government Indian Reservation "without and beyond the jurisdiction of the Court." This raises an involved question of federal jurisdiction, posing a problem that is obviously beyond the capacity of even an intelligent and educated layman, and which clearly demands the counsel of experience and skill.

The policy of leaving Indians free from state jurisdiction and control is deeply rooted in the Nation's history. See Worcester v. Georgia, 6 Pet. 515. In the light of this historical background, Congress, in 1885, passed a comprehensive Act, 23 Stat. 362, 385, in order to fulfill "treaty stipulations with various Indian tribes," specifically including the Winnebagoes, of which tribe the petitioner alleges he is a member. The last section of that Act subjects Indians who commit certain crimes, including burglary, to trial and punishment. The language there used to accomplish this purpose is that

all such Indians committing any of the above crimes against the person or property of another Indian or other person within the boundaries of any the United States, and within the limits of any Indian reservation, shall be subject to the same laws, tried in the same courts and in the same manner, and subject to the same penalties

Page 7...

To continue reading